For parents, childcare is very high on the list of priorities. Who should they leave their child with and will it be a positive or a negative experience?
Reporter Leila Mckinnon addresses the pros and cons of childcare and we're looking to science to help us out with a little experiment.
But first, let's get down to basics: what is it that children need from childcare?
"The reality is that children must be in environments where there are adults who love them to bits," says Associate Professor Margaret Sims, Program Director for the School of International, Cultural and Community Studies at Edith Cowan University in Perth. "I've been working for quite a while now in childcare, looking at quality of childcare and how that affects children in the short and long term. And we've been able to use a tool called cortisol."
Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone. As our stress levels rise we produce more cortisol to provide the energy we need to cope. But that energy has to come from somewhere, so functions like rational thinking and memory are affected.
"So for children who are highly stressed, that means their brain isn't able to turn on and engage in learning. So high stress over a long period of time has really negative effects on children's learning and on their long-term outcomes," says Associate Professor Sims.
So what does this mean?
Associate Professor Sims compares the cortisol levels of three kids Hunter, Molly and Laura, from three different types of childcare.
Hunter is nearly two. His mum, Dominique Plumley, looks after him at home. "At the end of the day I just decided that I would like to be with my children until they go to school, so that's what we're doing," says Dominique.
Two-year-old Molly goes to a small, home-based family day care two days a week. Mum Katriona Roberts works part-time. "She's one of four children which means that she gets a lot of attention that she possibly wouldn't get at a long day care centre. She loves going there," says Katriona.
The third is 18-month-old Laura, who goes to a childcare centre three days a week but a new job for her mum, Kellie Nolan, means that's about to change. "My old job has been made redundant, so it was a choice of continuing work or staying at home. And I chose to stay at work," says Kellie.
Laura will now spend five days a week in long day care.
All three toddlers have their cortisol levels taken while they are in day care, and then at home. If childcare is as stressful as some people suggest, we should be able to see a noticeable difference in the results.
Associate Professor Sims: "Cortisol is a really easy thing to work with now because we're able to analyse it through our saliva. We're simply taking a little swab of the mouth to collect saliva. We put that in a test tube and send it off to the laboratory."
So what are we looking for? A typical pattern of cortisol levels for you or me during a stress-free 24 hours would go something like this high in the morning, as we begin our day, a small spike before dinner and a gradual dropping away as we drift off to sleep.
The children's cortisol samples were tested at the laboratory, and the results sent to Perth for analysis. What did they reveal?
His stress levels for a quiet day and those for a busy day showed not much difference.
On her day at home Molly shows two very distinct peaks across the day for cortisol. Starting high in the morning, declining, then she has another peak just before lunchtime, and then declines to the end of the day. For her day care test the levels vary slightly, but the shape is almost identical.
"So she's obviously in a childcare where she feels comfortable," says Associate Professor Sims.
How did long day care Laura cope in her week? When compared with her home day, "Laura follows exactly the same pattern. She starts high, she declines, she has a little peak in the afternoon and then goes down again. The levels in childcare are just slightly higher than her levels at home, but not enough to be of any significance at all," says Associate Professor Sims.
So, for these kids it made little difference if they were at home or in care they obviously had quality carers looking after them. But that's not to say that all children are in good childcare.
Associate Professor Sims: "Quite often it's a gut feeling. It doesn't matter how fancy the programs are, no matter how fancy the equipment is, you can feel whether those children are loved, and that's the key ingredient."
So here's our childcare check list:
- Decide if it's a warm and friendly environment. Are you and your child made to feel welcome.
- Is it safe, clean, and well organised?
- Does your child feel comfortable?
- Try to spend some time with the carers to see how the service is run.
When it comes to childcare, the key word is quality. Do you have confidence in the people you've chosen to look after your child? If not, it's high time to look for something new after all, it's not about you, it's about them.