Childcare through a Child’s Eye

On Father’s Day, Professor Michael E. Lamb, Duncan Fisher and Miriam Fisher look at childcare from the perspective of a child.

The Welsh Government provides up to 30 hours per week of early education and childcare for three to four-year-olds through their Childcare Offer. This consists of a minimum of 10 hours of early education, available to all parents, and a maximum of 20 hours of childcare, available only to working parents. From September 2022, the Welsh Government will be expanding the childcare component of the Offer to parents in education and training. In addition, two-year-old children in disadvantaged areas benefit from 12.5 hours of free childcare through the Flying Start scheme. As part of the Labour and Plaid Cymru co-operation deal, provision of free, part-time childcare will be extended to all two-year-olds, with the rollout planned to commence in September 2022. 

According to the Welsh Government, the primary policy aims of the education and childcare elements of the Offer are: to enable more parents, particularly mothers, to return to work; to increase the disposable income of those in work and help counteract poverty for those in low-paid jobs; and to encourage child development and school readiness.

However, not all three aims are given equal weighting when the policy is promoted to families. Although information about early education provision outlines the benefits to children (development of language, social skills, cognitive development, physical development, etc.), information about free childcare for working parents focuses on the benefits in terms of improving family finances and increasing parental employment opportunities. The Childcare Offer site states that “the aim is to give working parents a bit of extra money every month”, and that the Offer “has already helped parents from all over Wales to return to work, increase their hours or work more flexibly.” The site does mention that childcare can provide an opportunity for children to develop their Welsh language skills, but aside from this there is no mention of the benefits of childcare to children. The third policy aim of the Offer, that of encouraging child development and school readiness, is notably absent from the site promoting the Offer, despite the fact that understanding the benefits to children may encourage parents to take up the free childcare in Wales. Local authority websites from around Wales generally share the financial focus when describing the Offer. 

Sharing care is an unavoidable necessity for all but the most wealthy because the investment required in raising a human child is so high.

Benefits to children should be made the priority consideration when designing our childcare system. When childcare is considered from this perspective – as an educational service supporting child development – more attention is paid to its quality, both by providers and parents. And quality is important in childcare, making a particular difference to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sharing care is the essence of human parenting

A myth has grown up in recent times among an affluent elite in western countries that exclusive parental care is the best for children and that sharing care poses a risk to the child-mother relationship and to the child’s wellbeing. So strong is the myth that exclusive maternal care has come to be labelled as “traditional” or “natural”. Researchers have called it “the myth of motherhood”. In reality, sharing care of children is universal across the globe and throughout human history. We have evolved as “co-operative breeders” argues Sarah Hrdy in her celebrated book, Mothers and Others (2009).

Sharing care is an unavoidable necessity for all but the most wealthy because the investment required in raising a human child is so high. Humans are born at a much earlier stage of development than are the young of other mammalian species, and a larger proportion of development takes place outside of the womb in humans than in any other mammal. Furthermore, the complex process of socialisation of children is extremely prolonged. Children benefit from the different styles and skills needed when interacting with a variety of people. So humans share the care of their children, to ensure both the survival of the children and themselves. In most societies, prior to weaning, mothers assume the heaviest portion of childcare responsibilities, but other carers (“alloparents”) are active long before weaning in many cultures.

Another fundamental characteristic of human parenting is the enormous diversity of ways in which the care of children is shared, driven principally by economic forces. In agricultural societies, infants are typically left in the care of siblings, relatives or neighbours while their mothers work in the fields. In Sweden, family policy has been shaped by rapid industrialisation, driving a need for employment of women and the raising of future workers. Later the promotion of gender equality became a driver. In the US, Canada and UK childcare was expanded during the Second World War to encourage mothers to work while men were away fighting and dying. The professional childcare we now discuss in Wales is just one of a myriad of forms of sharing care of children, albeit rather recent from an historical perspective.

Does childcare damage parent-child attachment?

The myth of motherhood has driven anxiety about childcare, lest it damage the mother-child bond.

As every mother or father who has dropped off their infant at childcare knows, the moment of separation is hard for both child and parent! I (Duncan) used to describe the walk away from the childcare facility where I had left Miriam (co-author of this article) as “walking through treacle”.

The transition from home to childcare has been the subject of research in Europe. Infants between 4 and 19 months indeed do not like being separated from their attachment figures. They typically show despair-like behaviour, such as crying, becoming immobile and self-comforting. The intensity of their distress does not seem to be related to how secure the attachment to their parent is. (The childcare research mostly focuses on mother-child attachment, but there is another body of research showing father-child attachment operates in the same way.)

When children who receive or do not receive nonparental care are compared, no significant differences are found in parent-child relationships. There is some evidence that childcare has a negative impact if parenting is already insensitive, in which case the priority should be to provide support to the parent.

How parents manage parenting around childcare is important. They need to be particularly attentive to children at home after childcare, attending to fussing and crying, so providing the emotion-regulating support that the child is unlikely to obtain from care providers in group settings. Unsurprisingly, therefore, research has shown that parents tend to do just that. Parents who use childcare tend to interact more intensively with their child than parents of home-only children – not only on days of childcare but also other days in the week. 

The quality of childcare is important for child development

Research shows that the quality and length of childcare influences child development. The Goteborg Child Care Study in Sweden study found that high quality childcare consistently correlates with a child’s maturity, social skills and compliance with parental requests. The US’s NICHD Early Child Care Study found that children who experienced nonparental childcare were likely to show better language and cognitive development than children cared for only at home. Perhaps this is because of the richer language environment in childcare and the opportunities for interaction with peers.

The same US study found that, irrespective of childcare quality, two-year-olds who experience childcare are more like to show behaviour problems and less cooperative behaviour, but these correlations disappear within a year if the childcare is of good quality.

The combination of excessive hours of childcare and poor quality childcare is linked with behaviour problems in the child (e.g. aggression) and a decline in the parent-child relationship (e.g. response to the child’s distress in the evening).

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


There is an important proviso. The intense interest in how childcare influences child development has tended to overstate the importance of this influence in comparison with the quality of parenting at home and other family background and family relationship factors. These consistently show stronger influences than the quality of childcare. Children in childcare are still getting much from their parents.

What should the objective of childcare policy be?

We are advocating that the contribution of childcare to child development should be at the core of the design of and promotion of childcare to parents.

Enhancing gender equality in caring between men and women is another possible objective. This objective, however, is wholly frustrated in Wales by three factors. First, pursuing this objective requires a parallel parental leave policy that facilitates sharing between parents. Parental leave policy in Wales is wholly dysfunctional and is not devolved. (See extended discussion of this in the earlier piece in this childcare series, Let’s talk about fathers.) Second, it requires a focus on the first year when the unequal sharing of care between mothers and fathers is commonly established. If a big difference in parenting competence and confidence emerges between mothers and fathers in the first year, it is difficult to change roles. And third, it needs attention to the gender of the childcare workforce. If childcare is just about lower paid women caring for the children of higher paid women, the benefits for gender equality are dubious.

Another important possible contribution of childcare is educating children in local cultures and languages, for example, recently arrived immigrant families. In Wales, childcare is sometimes promoted as an opportunity for children to learn to communicate in Welsh, the only quality aspect of childcare that is headlined in promoting free childcare to parents in Wales.

What is high quality childcare?

The quality of childcare should be set by Government and externally assessed. Parents, both more affluent parents and those stressed by low income, tend to over-estimate the quality of childcare. How parents appraise childcare quality differs markedly from expert assessments.

In Wales, childcare settings are registered with Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW), which requires compliance with the National Minimum Standards for Regulated Child Care. These standards are wide-ranging and cover several topics related to the quality of care (e.g., opportunities for play, wellbeing, and working with parents). Some early education settings are also inspected by Estyn to ensure they meet with educational standards. 

There has been much research on the quality of childcare and its correlations to child development. There are two broad categories of quality measures. The first category, “process measures”, involves direct observation of the childcare setting, and how care providers and children interact. The second category, “structural measures”, look at things like care provider training and experience, adult-child ratio, and staff turnover.

Broadly speaking measurements by these two methods correlate with each other: structure shapes function, and function produces child development outcomes. The US NICHD Early Child Care research found that care provider training and adult-child ratios affect cognitive competence in children via their impact on the quality of the care (carer sensitivity to children, provision of cognitive stimulation, emotional climate).

Based on a wide evidence base, five aspects of high quality care emerge as significant.

1. Training and salaries of care providers. 

As noted above, this correlates with better quality of care. Better salaries attract better trained people who stay longer in the job. In Wales, the Progress for Success scheme provides training for childcare practitioners, aiming to increase the quality of childcare provision.

2. Managing the transition to childcare for children.

Giving parents the opportunity to accompany their child to a childcare centre in the early days eases the inevitable stress of the transition for the child. The national minimum standards for childcare in Wales specify that the settling-in process should be “appropriate for the individual child” to minimise the distress of separation from parents or carers.

3. Communication with parents

Some research has found good communication to be correlated with better child wellbeing. Parents can have little idea of what is happening in childcare and care providers can form low opinions of parents! The foundation of effective shared care of infants is strong collaboration between the carers. “Working in partnership with parents”, including keeping parents informed about activities, achievements or changes, is identified as a minimum standard for childcare in Wales. 

4. Group dynamics

A key role of care providers is supervising the social interactions among children. Interaction between children is a key benefit of childcare, particularly for children without siblings. Children learn through activities like pretend play, and they learn how to deal with disagreements. They form their first friendships at the age of 2. But things can go wrong, and some children can get left out, both of which require adequate carer supervision. Unstable and large groups can mean that carers are not able to provide such supervision adequately.

An important component of group dynamics is gender. Girls appear to be slightly more likely to form secure relationships with care providers than are boys. This suggests that care providers, almost all women, tend to provide care that is more likely to fit girls better than boys, for example more emphasis on safety and relaxation than on excitement and exploration.

The national minimum standards for childcare in Wales include a section on behaviour, and specifies that “inappropriate behaviour, including bullying, is managed, addressed and discouraged.”

5. Additional support for children who need more help

Attentiveness to the needs of diverse children is important in childcare settings.

High quality childcare has a positive impact on all children, but it has a bigger positive impact on children from less advantaged backgrounds e.g. low income, single parent, minority ethnic families. School readiness and academic performance (e.g. scores in maths, language and IQ tests) improve more for children from disadvantaged families than for children from more affluent families (though these benefits attenuate over time unless these families are provided with ongoing additional support). The benefits to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are further enhanced when parents are also provided directly with support, for example, during home visits. In Wales, the Flying Start programme provides free childcare for two- to three-year-old children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and there is a section on “meeting individual needs” within the national minimum standards for childcare policy. 


To summarise: 

  • Good quality childcare is beneficial for children: children profit from a range of interactions and more attentive parenting at home. 
  • Where they do not already, childcare standards in Wales should specify the five areas of quality outlined above.
  • We need to promote childcare differently in Wales, outlining the benefits to children so that more people take up the Offer. This in turn will encourage higher quality childcare.  

The main source for this piece is an earlier and detailed review of childcare research: Lamb, M. E., & Ahnert, L. (2006). Nonparental Child Care: Context, Concepts, Correlates, and Consequences. In K. A. Renninger, I. E. Sigel, W. Damon, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Child psychology in practice (pp. 950–1016). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Duncan Fisher is Project Manager of Our Food, a project of the Conservation Farming Trust, a small not-for-profit company set up to advance agroecological farming in the UK.
Miriam Fisher is an assistant psychologist in Wales.
Professor Michael E. Lamb is a professor and former Head of the then Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

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