ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 22

Do they really care?

With more parents opting to keep their children at Day Care centres, Ayesha Inoon looks at the pros and cons

A little boy sits alone at a table, listlessly picking at his food. He is still in his school uniform. A toddler has crawled into a playhouse and fallen asleep on the floor. A small girl wails for her mother. No one notices. The other children are asleep, curled up on quilts on the floors of the rooms. Inside there is a clatter, as a tray of milk bottles is being prepared, each numbered and labelled, for when they wake up.

These are the children of day care, children for whom the day care centre is a substitute for home most of their day. Some come to the centre right after school; the younger ones arrive in the morning. There are a small number of babies, just a few months old. The children follow a daily routine at the day care centre which includes lunch, a nap, a wash and some playtime or other activities.

Cane corner: Some centres use physical punishment

The past few years have seen the number of day care centres around the country rapidly increasing. With many mothers choosing to continue with their careers after having their babies, more and more parents are looking for day care centres to care for their children while they are at work.

For most, the decision to leave their child in day care is not an easy one to make. “My mother is old, she can’t look after my youngest son, who can be very naughty,” says Roshan* whose four-year-old is at a day care centre. He adds that they need the salary of his wife, a lawyer, to maintain their current lifestyle as well as to save for their children’s future. To stay at home with the children is not an option for her. Due to these reasons, they have to make this present sacrifice, he says.

Similarly, other parents too say that they need the salaries of both spouses to make ends meet. For many single parents, they have no other choice. When grandparents or other relatives are either elderly or living too far away - when parents cannot afford a live-in nanny - the only alternative for them is day care.

Play corner at another centre

However, are these day care centres really equipped to take over the raising of young children, particularly those in the first few years of their lives? Can they substitute for the one-on-one love and attention a child would receive at home from one dedicated care-giver?

“A good day care centre, conducted by professionals, can offer a child many advantages,” says Childcare Consultant, Geetha Kaduwela. If there are carefully planned activities, suited to the child’s interest and abilities, it nurtures a child’s development and confidence. The opportunity to interact with other children, which he may not have at home, teaches co-operation as well, she says.

While experts agree that high quality day care can be beneficial in many ways, it is doubtful if this is what is being provided in many day care centres.

At most of the day care centres visited by The Sunday Times the care of children was given over to domestics. At some of the more expensive centres, the only qualification required for a caregiver was to be ‘English-speaking’. No qualifications in child management or child psychology were necessary.

The caregiver: child ratio was often high, with one caregiver being responsible for ten children or more. Older and younger children were not separated, increasing the risk of infections as well as accidents. At one centre, the lady in charge admitted to occasionally using physical punishment, saying that it was sometimes ‘the only way to control the boys.’

“Poor quality day care can have a negative impact on a child’s development and personality, particularly within the first three years of life,” says psychologist, Sameeha Jalaldeen. Children who are exposed to this kind of environment during their early years can tend to become particularly aggressive, depressed and antisocial later on.

“Children need security and strong emotional attachments, whether it is from their parents or from another devoted person,” she says, pointing out that in a day care setting where one caregiver is responsible for a large number of children, it is hardly possible to create this kind of bond. This can cause feelings of insecurity in children which may lead to chronic anger and poor impulse control afterward. The lack of strong, secure relationships in childhood can also make them unable to form meaningful, intimate relationships as adults.

Also, every parent knows that hugs and cuddles are an important part of raising a young child. At many day care centres, caregivers are restricted from hugging the children, or even carrying the young babies. “We don’t want them to get used to it, then they may want to be carried all the time,” said one Directress of a Day Care Centre, “We don’t want to pet or spoil them.” Strict discipline is often enforced to keep the children under control.

However, studies have shown that children who are often held and cuddled during the early years are more likely to grow into happy and stable adults. “Affection is particularly important in the crucial first years of life,” says Ms. Jalaldeen, adding that toddlers in particular need such comfort during tantrums as they still haven’t mastered how to cope with their temper by themselves. “Infants and toddlers who receive regular physical contact show a sense of emotional well-being in addition to being better socially and intellectually adapted than their counterparts who are affection-deprived.”

The absence of a close continuous relationship with a caring mother or surrogate spells doom for the psychological well-being of the infant, says Ms. Jalaldeen. Mother-child bonding is a necessary step towards developing a sense of trust in others, self confidence and a sense of right and wrong. If a mother or other close relative is unable to care for the child during the first years and day care is the only alternative, she says, it should be very high quality day care, where one caregiver has just a few students under her charge and therefore such close bonds may be formed.

In such an atmosphere on the other hand, children can and do thrive. “The children really enjoy themselves at our day care,” says the Directress of a day care centre in a leading school. Here, they follow a structured routine, which allows for a bath, nap, movies and music. In the evenings a teacher does handwork, colouring or painting with the children. Since there are fewer children, only those from the school, it allows the caregivers to give more attention to each child, she says.

However, she also adds that there is a marked difference between the children who leave earlier in the day, before 3 p.m. and the children who stay on till 6 p.m. The ones who stay on till later tend to be more irritable and stubborn, she says, advising parents to pick up their children as early as possible, and if the mother is able to, to work part-time during the first years, so that the child is given her undivided attention for at least part of the day.

A good day care centre is more than merely a service that lets parents go to work. More importantly, parents are choosing a whole world for their child, a world that affects the child's physical, intellectual, emotional and social development.

“The first five years are the most important in the life of a child,” says Mrs. Kaduwela. The experiences during this stage of life play a significant role in the long-term process of development and personality as an adult. The responsibility of caring for a child during this stage is not to be taken lightly and parents should think carefully before delegating this responsibility to someone else, she adds.

* Name has been changed

Choosing a day care centre

Most parents would like to know that their children are somewhere safe, happy and healthy while they are at work. At present, day care centres in Sri Lanka are registered as business organisations, and require no particular licence unlike in the West, where state agencies regulate the founding and running of these institutions. However, there are several factors that parents can consider before choosing a day care centre for their child.

  • Qualified caregivers – There are several institutes which offer courses in Childcare Management, Child Psychology and Early Childhood or Pre-school Education. Find out if the main caregivers at the day care centre hold any of these qualifications, as well as how experienced they are.
  • Child to staff ratio – The fewer children each staff member is responsible for, the better. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a ratio of one staff person for 3 to 5 small children and one staff member for 7 to 10 older children.
  • Safety - Play equipment should be clean and in good repair. The toys should be age-appropriate. Electrical outlets should be covered with safety caps. There should be safety gates where there are very small children. There should be a plan for contacting parents in case of emergency.
  • Hygiene – Rules for washing hands before eating and after toilet use must be followed by children as well as caregivers. Milk bottles and other utensils should be sterilised daily. Toilets as well as all other surfaces should be cleaned with disinfectant every day.
  • A complete schedule of activities - Good centres will have a schedule that allows for play time, quiet time, individual activities, meals, snacks, and group activities.
  • The centre’s policies for discipline – What sort of methods do they use? How would they handle a tantrum from a young child? Do they resort to physical punishment?
  • Sick children – Children with infectious diseases must not be allowed to come to the centre until they are better. Even otherwise, sick children must be separated from the others, perhaps in a sick-room. Ideally, the day care centre should have a record of health-related problems, such as allergies, illnesses, and injuries for each child.

It is best to visit several day care centres before making the final choice. Cost is not always indicative of the quality of day care.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.