Home best for babies says doctor

13:50, Jun 12 2009

A leading neonatal paediatrician is warning parents to do all they can to avoid putting their young children in daycare, saying it could permanently harm their developing brains.

Dr Simon Rowley, who works at Auckland's National Women's Hospital and in private practice, will tell 900 nurses and volunteers at a Plunket conference in Rotorua tomorrow that they should encourage parents "to actually be parents - not absentee parents".

His controversial message will again stir up the daycare debate - opponents say some parents can't afford to stay home and that daycare is a chance for children to learn social skills, as well as a sanity break and valuable learning experience for parents.

But Rowley says one parent or family member should try to stay home with the child, at least for the first two years. The second best option is to hire a nanny or other "single person" carer. And if parents do need to resort to daycare, they should choose a centre with plenty of staff and flexible routines.

"When people ask me, to be politically correct I say: 'Well, if you choose your daycare well, that's good.' But if you have a choice you should always go for staying home a bit longer."

Education Ministry statistics show more than 65,000 New Zealand children, two or under, are enrolled in daycare of some kind.

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So what's wrong with daycare?

Rowley, a presenter for the Brainwave Trust, bases his message on studies by Canadian expert Megan Gunnar and American researcher Michael Meaney.

Gunnar studied the levels of stress hormone cortisol in children and found 80 percent of children in daycare became more stressed throughout the day, with toddlers showing the biggest rises in stress.

Gunnar found it was the daycare centre setting, not being separated from their parents, that triggered the rise in cortisol levels.

This reaction disappeared by school-age, but by that time, sustained high cortisol levels may have already caused permanent damage to the brain. That could affect everything from the child's future relationships to their ability to learn and deal with stress as an adult.

The research also showed that quality care reduced children's stress levels; while children who cling to their teachers or have difficult relationships with their teachers were more stressed.

Meaney found that the type of nurturing children receive can alter their genes, changing the way they cope with stress - a change that can be passed on to future generations.

Rowley says "enormous tension" was created when former prime minister Helen Clark's social policies started helping mothers back into the workforce.

"That isn't what's necessarily best for the child. I think the evidence is increasing that it's best for the child to be with a single caregiver if possible, or, you know, with family."

Rowley says he has been promoting the stay-at- home message for about two years, and gets hostile reactions from some parents.

"There are people who have children who don't really want to be parents or to look after [children] - they get pretty bolshy and say 'it's my right, rah rah rah'. But my thought about that is why on earth are they having children if they don't want to be with them?"

Early Childhood Council chief executive Sarah Farquhar is deeply concerned that Rowley will be giving Plunket nurses the stay-at-home message.

"It's going back to the times of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. That's not healthy for children and it's not healthy for women . . . making parents feel guilty about their choices is not the way to go.

"This is a very old-fashioned stereotypical viewpoint that isn't in keeping with today's time or what we know from the literature within early childhood education."

She says not every parent has a child by choice and that when parents can't cope - for reasons such as stress, postnatal depression or even drug addiction - daycare can be a haven for children.

Farquhar says many parents don't get to choose which centre their baby goes to because demand is so high - often parents stay on waiting lists for six months before a place becomes available.

Farquhar is also concerned about staff shortages and a lack of specialised training for nurturing the very young children in daycare.

But she says centres are still better than hiring a nanny or deciding to stay home with a child out of guilt.

"You can have a nanny, for example, who is totally useless."

Sunday Star Times