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Cortisol and Daycare for Children Under Three

Awhile back I came across this article in The Guardian.  In it, Oliver James reports on research that shows that when children under three were left in daycare, their cortisol levels had doubled from normal an hour after their parent left on the first, fifth and ninth day at a daycare centre.  The research also showed that children who spent a lot of time in daycares as young children also had raised cortisol levels when they were 15 years old.  This research is part of a larger trend of research showing that certain mainstream parenting practices, including leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep, stresses children and causes elevated brain cortisol levels.  This is a problem because cortisol is linked to changes in brain structure and reduced connectivity.  Stress isn’t good for anyone, but it’s particularly bad for babies and children under three because they are still undergoing so much brain development.  Neural changes that are triggered by cortisol at such an early age may have effects that last the rest of their lives as their brain lays down it’s blueprints early on and builds from that foundation. gkgjflgjlk

If we look at this research as purely scientific knowledge that is unconnected to a larger cultural milieu, we can say things like, “Based on this research, babies and toddlers need to be with a single caregiver for the entirety of their first three years for their health and well-being later in life.”  But we don’t live in such a compartmentalized world.  This research is controversial because it can be taken to mean, “You women better get back into the home where you belong, and if you don’t you’ll have to live with the guilt of causing your baby’s brain damage.”

Somewhere in between those two extreme statements is the reality, and a place where we can discuss what children need and how we can help get those needs met.  It’s important to take research like this to heart: young children are stressed out by the absence of a trusted parent, large groups of their peers, low caregiver to child ratios and constantly changing faces and hands caring for them.  The best situation for a baby or toddler is a small number of constant caregivers, who are trusted and available to respond to needs as quickly as possible.

How we get that situation depends on each family’s resources and flexibility, and sadly, many families do not have the resources to provide one-on-one or low caregiver ratio care for their babies and toddlers.  As a culture we talk about the “childcare crisis” or the high cost of quality nannies and long waiting lists at daycares, but there are so many other factors at play.  A mom on an email list I’m part of recently put it this way: from another perspective, we could say there is a “cost of living” crisis, because so many families must depend on two incomes in order to buy a house or purchase necessities.  We could also say there is a “parenting crisis,” in which we don’t have the resources and support necessary to parent our own children.

In Canada, we have more governmental resources available to support families than are available in the United States, including a full year of Maternity Leave, payments for Universal Childcare paid to primary caregivers of children under six and Child Tax benefits for everyone, paid according to income.  But there is room for so much more support, especially in light of this research on group daycare and young children.  Measures such as increasing the minimum wage would help everyone cope with the rising disparity between the living wage required to live in a city such as Vancouver and the current minimum wage.

Choosing to use or avoid group daycare for babies and toddlers leads parents into a complicated, tangled up web of issues, including whether we can afford to live as single income families, how rising proportions of double income families might raise the cost of living for everyone, feminism, parenting, freedom, attachment and the hard scientific facts about children’s brains and the kind of environments they spend their days growing and learning in.  I hope research like this will spur on social change and a recasting of priorities, with more support for families who want to share childcare and income earning between two parents or choose to have one parent stay home.

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