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Child Care and Attachment

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

For many who come from the tradition of mother-child attachment as an exclusive relationship, a crucial question is: What does child care do to attachment? This section focuses on child care rather than the larger picture of early care and education because the concern relates to long hours out of the home. Preschool, kindergarten, and primary school don’t cause people to worry about attachment for several reasons. The time factor is one. When children leave home for preschool they aren’t gone for as many hours as they may be when in full-day child care. Age is another reason. Children are older when they leave home for preschool, and presumably attachment to family has already occurred. The big worry is when an infant who is still in the beginning stages of attachment spends most of his or her waking hours away from home and family.

From the days of the classic research on orphanages, the term maternal deprivation rings in the ears and sends chills down the spine. Horror stories of old-time orphanages come to mind—babies left to themselves in rows of cribs along sterile walls. The picture is heartbreaking. Those babies had no attachment, few interactions, little power to influence anyone in their lives, a feeling that no one cared about them, and a great lack of any kind of sensory stimulation. No wonder many died and the rest were left impaired. More recent orphanage pictures come to us from Romania and China. Not pretty pictures!

Resistance to creating child care for babies has been strong, but when Clinton signed the welfare reform bill and sent mothers of babies out of the home, that resistance melted. Some still worry about group care for babies—and well they should. It takes special knowledge and expertise to do a good job with babies. Now we know you can’t just line babies up in cribs, change and feed them on schedule, and expect them to be okay while their family members are working.

Luckily we have better models than those old-time orphanages. From Budapest in Hungary comes a different picture. The children thrive in the Pikler Institute, which was mentioned earlier in this chapter. There attachment has been carefully thought through and fits into a comprehensive approach that has been studied by the World Health Organization. According to their results, children who spent their first three years in this residential care nursery end up as adults who show none of the signs of impairment that children from deprived orphanages show. A key factor is the approach taken to attachment described in a book called Loczy: An Unusual Approach to Mothering (David & Appell, 2001).

Effects of Child Care on Attachment

Child care is not an orphanage; the children have families who are raising them. Child care is supplemental to these families, not a replacement for them. A way to look at attachment in out-of-home-child care is this. Children in child care have not just one person who cares about them—a parent—but often two or more. Children usually arrive in child care already firmly attached to their own family and may well acquire a secondary attachment or two in child care.

A look to Israel reassures us that parents and children can remain attached even if the parents never live with their children or are never responsible for their day-to-day care. In some of the kibbutzim in Israel, where communal living was a norm and a value, children were raised from infancy separate from their parents. They visited their parents, but they didn’t live with them. Full-time caregivers/teachers, rather than the parents, were in charge of child rearing and education.

There was no lack of attachment between parents and children in the kibbutzim. Attachment looked different because children split their attachment between parents and peer group. However, each child was well aware of his or her identity as a member of his or her own family—and each felt a sense of belonging.

Another question to ask when looking at the effects of child care on attachment to family is: What is the situation of the child’s family? Obviously if a family is overwhelmed by stress and the members are not functioning well, and a baby is born into the family at this point, some protective factors may be crucial. The early care and education program can provide these factors. In some situations, as when an overburdened single parent is able to get the support and referral to services needed, the child care program can literally be a lifesaver.

Such programs exist. Some child care and early education programs in the United States today not only give services to children but also give families the support they need to get on their feet so they, themselves, can provide for their children’s needs. These kinds of programs are cost-effective because they deal with attachment and other needs at the beginning rather than trying to fix problems that arise later, which is much more expensive (Pawl, 1995; Raikes, 1996). We could use many more of these kinds of programs! Prevention is a key word when looking at early deprivation and attachment problems.

Unfortunately, these kinds of comprehensive programs are too few in number. If the baby in the above example is placed in a child care program in which he never gets to know any of his caregivers and his mother gets little or no support, it’s a different story. Attachment may be delayed because caregivers come and go too fast. Not one of the adults gets to know him well enough to read his signals, understand his uniqueness, become fond of him. Child care may save his life yet still not provide for his attachment and trust needs. Because of underfunding, that’s the tragedy of the state of many child care programs in the United States today. The turnover rate of caregivers and teachers in underfunded programs is shocking.

You can’t know exactly how child care affects attachment without considering countless variables that have to do with the quality of the care and the way the family works. One important aspect of quality care is the partnership between the parents and the program. When child care staff and providers develop a collaborative relationship with the parents that includes more than just parent education and involvement, everybody stands to gain—including the child!

Some parents don’t have much choice about using child care for their babies and won’t until parental leave becomes a societal policy. It may reassure these parents to know that most studies have shown that babies become attached to their own parents even when child care is begun quite early.

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