This week I was listening to the radio in the car and they had a feature on how small children were being affected by being placed into nursery. Apparently there is new research that shows that toddlers in nursery experience heightened levels of stress compared to those cared for at home. As the radio host chaired an informative debate on the subject, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely terrible. The reason: I had just dropped my daughter Meri off for an extra session at nursery, thinking it would be good for her.
The research was conducted on children between the ages of 11 and 20 months (Meri is 18 months old – great!) and it found that the levels of the stress hormone cortisol doubled in the first week or so in daycare. Even five months after their first day in nursery the toddlers were experiencing significantly higher levels of cortisol even though they had outwardly settled in just fine (ouch – Meri has been going to nursery for six months now). The research found that these children needed extra attention from their mothers at the end of the day to compensate (no mention of fathers here…) and to rebalance their “emotional equilibrium.”
I think every parent feels guilty about putting their little ones into nursery. However, everyone does it for good reasons. Some parents simply don’t have the choice. In these difficult economic times they need both wages to survive. In our case, we put Meri into nursery for four sessions a week because we figured it was good for her. No-one takes the decision lightly and everyone does it because they think it is the right thing for their family in their particular circumstances.
For my part, I remain a fan of nursery for little ones. I think it is no bad thing for kids to learn some independence from a young age. They need to understand that Mummy and Daddy won’t always be around and that sometimes they need to make their own way in the world (to be clear, I am not advocating that Meri move out into a bedsit quite yet…).
In addition, it is no bad thing for even small children to learn to play with other children their own age and get used to the company of their peer group. Nursery also provides some structure to the day for my children. Whilst I do my best to create some order at home, in reality most days we are rarely more than a few seconds away from complete chaos. Finally, I don’t think a little bit of stress hurt anyone, even from an early age. We all need to learn that things don’t always go exactly as we would like them to.
In the end though, the research stops short of saying that daycare is bad for children. There is no evidence of the long term effects of heightened levels of cortisol on toddlers. In fact there is plenty of research that shows that nursery is a pretty much neutral experience for children. A good nursery that provides a stable, secure and loving environment does children no harm in the long run. So it turns out that the only person who is likely to be adversely affected by nursery stress is me.