Ellen is a professional woman, a psychologist who works at a hospital in New York City. She is a new mom who came to the three sessions of play and movement for infants and their parents that I periodically conduct at a public library in Nassau County. She was anxious about being a new parent and it was obvious that she loved her baby very much and was intent on learning how to be sensitive and responsive to her newborn child.
Under the guidance of the workshop sessions, she began to relax, give her baby eye contact and establish a bonding relationship with her child. When she came back each time, she happily reported on the progress she was making, a progress that was obvious from the reaction the child was giving her. It was a wonderful experience, shared by mothers throughout all time.
But Ellen had a problem, one shared by millions of mothers in our country today. She had to return to work because her husband’s income alone could not support their new family. But what about her infant? How could she leave that beautiful child with whom she was just beginning to share such a loving bond and who she knew desperately needed her?
Two Part Solution In Many Countries
For those millions of families who must have the second income in order to survive economically, the answer must come in two parts, both of them recognized by most developed countries who have programs that deal in some degree with the problem. The two parts are (1) a program of paid parental leave for mother or father, and (2) a comprehensive program of low-cost, high-quality early child care.
Paid parental leave are national policies in many countries today varying in form from country to country. A study by the International Labor Organization in 2014 of 186 countries found some form of paid leave for mothers as policies in 96 percent of them, with a little less than half of these countries also covering fathers who wish to become the daytime caregiver. Among high income, developed countries only one, the United States , does not have a national policy of paid leave, joining only seven other less developed countries in this category. A few states have taken some halting steps toward it and some union contracts, like the one covering the City University of New York and the Professional Staff Congress representing its faculty, cover it.
Again, varying from one country to another, virtually all the nations in the European Union guarantee at least 14 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds pay with job security for their return. Denmark has about the most generous grogram of all with 52 weeks of paid leave with partial pay that both parents can share. The mother can take 18 weeks at full pay, the father two weeks, with the parents deciding how to split the remainder of the 52 weeks.
“Family leave, both paid and unpaid, have shown to have significant benefits for the health of individual family members and for the well-being of the family overall,” reports a 2014 study of data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The study, Paid Parental Leave in the United States, was prepared for the US Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. All of the sources referred to below are cited in this study.
Benefits for Children’s Health
Since the landmark 2000 Shonkoff and Phillips study,. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, and much subsequent research, we know that in the first years of life the brain develops at its most rapid rate. The resources and supports that the child has during this period will have critical and sometimes lasting effects upon the development of his emotional, cognitive, and social well-being. During this period, bonding with the parent is crucial to this development. These early interactions between parent and infant fastens themselves in the developing brain of the child and become the base for future learning. They are being readied, (or in far too many cases, not readied) for school. Paid parental leave during this time is very important to this development in many ways.
(1) It increases the rates and duration of breastfeeding, strengthening the bond between mother and child. This reduces the risk of health problems like asthma, respiratory illness, diabetes, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome, and others, and promotes positive psychological and social development, according to a study by of Health and Human Services in 2000 and 2011. Mothers who took advantage of paid leave have been found to breastfeed their infants twice as long as those who did not.
(2) It lowers the rate of infant mortality, according to a study done in 2011. It found that full-time paid leave of 10 weeks resulted in a drop of 9 to 10 percent in infant and toddler mortality rates.
(3) It is important for the mother’s mental health and well being, improving the quality of care she gives to her child. Another 2011 study found that mothers who had paid leave for 12 weeks had lower levels of depression and poor health.
(4) Fathers who had some paid parental leave were also found to be more likely to spend time with their infants and children, reducing the stress on families and strengthening the bonding between fathers and their children, according to data compiled in 2013.
Benefits for Our Country
Opponents of paid parental leave always point out the cost. “Too expensive,” they say, “Employers can’t afford it. The county can’t afford it.” Research on existing paid leave programs in other countries and in state administered programs in our country suggest the opposite on both counts.
The study, Paid Parental Leave in the United States, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, cited above, shows that paid leave leads to negligible costs to employers in terms of temporary employee replacement costs or overtime paid to existing employees and has few if any costs–and potentially gains–in terms of employee morale and productivity. It “increases the likelihood that workers will return to work after childbirth, improves employee morale, has no or positive effects on workplace productivity, reduces costs to employers through improved employee retention, and improves family incomes. It further suggests that expanding paid leave is likely to have economy-wide benefits such as reduced government spending on public assistance and increased labor force participation, which would bring concomitant economic gains, generating a larger tax base and increased consumer spending.
Paid leave for fathers, according to one study cited by the US Government Accountability Office “finds that paid leave for fathers helps to foster gender equality… shortens leave for mothers, increasing their job tenure and potentially their wage growth.” Overall, this job equality factor increases women’s participation in the labor force and would substantially increase the GDP. One study suggests that this could amount to a 5 percent increase in the GDP in the United States.
High Quality Early Child Care
Assuming that paid parental leave could become law in the United States as it is in other developed countries, the second question for many parents like Ellen, who have to work, would be, “Who would care for my child after my leave is over?” A toddler needs good quality care, adults who would assume the role of substitute parent, carrying on the role that mothers played during infancy. In our country today, this role is often taken by a grandparent, a nanny (if the parent can afford one, which in most cases does not apply) or a day care center. Some are good, some mediocre, and some downright bad. Back in 1996, the famed child care authority, J. Ronald Lally, Co-director of the WestEd Center for Child and Family Studies in Sausalito, California, declared that only 10 percent of child care centers in the United States can be considered good and 40 percent actually did harm to the children. While much may have changed since he made that statement 22 years ago, absent a national program of early child care, it is still safe to say that the picture is spotty.
So how can a parent like Ellen choose a good care center for her toddler, one that provides loving and nurturing care while stimulating his cognitive, social, and emotional growth? We reprint below an earlier post on this Website, How Can You Judge a Good Child Care Center.
According to a 1998 study of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development – as quoted by Kyle D. Pruitt, MD in his book Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self – “The higher the quality of childcare (more positive language stimulation and interaction between the child and provider), the greater the child’s language abilities at 18, 24, and 36 months, the better the cognitive development at age two and the more school readiness the child showed at age three.“ It further states, “Childcare quality was the most consistent predictor of children’s behavior. Children in care receiving more sensitive and responsive attention had fewer caregiver-reported problems at age two or three.” Conversely, Pruitt reports, “chaotic, non-nurturing childcare settings with high staff turnover, insufficient attention to kids, and little parental involvement” can interfere with even the youngest children’s “ability to focus, retain instruction, or regulate emotions.”
So, how can working parents select a high quality child care center for even their youngest children? What should they look for in choosing high quality care for their children? Pruitt gives some basic criteria:
- Look for a center where the staff is warm, loving, and responsive to the child, can respond to his individual needs, praising his achievement and supporting his development. This is essential for the stimulation that is essential for healthy brain growth and optimal development.
- A center should have at least one caregiver for every five children age 18 to 24 months and one caregiver for every six children age 24 to 36 months.
- Be sure the center is licensed by the state. Are references readily available?
- Is the space for children cheerful, bright, and inviting with clean, well-lighted, safe spacers? Is the noise level acceptable? Do you see many children crying? Are there well-organized toy and pretend-play areas?
- Are there quiet areas for rest and nap time?
- Is each child encouraged to be curious and creative?
- Does the center greet parents each day as they drop off or pick up their child and do they provide daily reports to the parents? Is it flexible enough to meet the family needs, like time schedules for children that can be adjusted to parents’ work schedules?
- Are educational, art materials, and books age-appropriate? Are they readily accessible for the children?
- Check out kitchen, bathrooms, and outside play areas for safety and access and to make sure there are safeguards to prevent children from wandering off.
- Check out written policies regarding illness, closings, and pick-ups. Do they have secure procedures for pick-ups by people other than their parents?
- Do they allow unannounced visits by parents indicating that they are not afraid of allowing parents to see the care their children are getting at any time?
We would also add one item: At the beginning of the child’s introduction to child care if the child feels uncomfortable with the new environment, does the center allow a parent to stay with a child until he gets used to it and doesn’t need the parent to stay anymore?
Needless to say, when working parents look for child care, they should choose very carefully. A good start in the life of their children will have lifelong positive consequences for him.