On the other side of the barrier – a Flemish and scientific view on early childcare

“Every international meeting or project is interesting. You start by thinking you’ll learn about other countries, their policy and choices. But you end up learning about yourself, your own ideas and  seeing them in a new perspective.”

Monique van Boom, Lecturer and researcher Karel de Grote University College, Antwerp, decided to step into the Great Nursery Debate following the Conference we organized on the 7th of November. Here is what she has to say:

On the 7th of November, Family and Job welcomed us to their first conference. The ProChil team was asked to join a discussion about childcare in Europe. We discussed maternity leave, mothers employment rates and the Barcelona targets of the European Union. As you may or may not know, in Belgium maternity leave is very short, 15 weeks. Fathers only have 10 days after the birth of their child. We (the Belgium team of ProChil) are very much aware Belgium is not a guiding country on this subject. We know we have less parental leave than other European countries. This was not the surprising part. The surprising part for me was the question: “Is there any debate or discussion about the length of maternity leave”. The answer is no. There is no discussion at all. Once on a blue moon the discussion about maternity leave flames up, but it’s not a heated debate. We are confident our childcare system takes good care of our children, even when they are very young and in centre-based childcare facilities.

The conference ended with Marek Herman claiming that childcare for children under the age of 2 is detrimental for their development. I was stunned. Not by his presentation or evidence to support this claim (as there was none), but by the premise of childcare as an evil force to be fought. When we asked him for scientific evidence on which he bases his claims, he told us there was no research.

Consider this my right to respond.

Marek Herman is not the first to claim that childcare has a negative effect on child development. This debate is as old as childcare itself. Proving this claim -or the opposite- with research is not easy, simply because researching this is very difficult. Child development is influenced by many factors and the only way to proof childcare is damaging development (or not), is to make sure that whatever results you find can’t be explained by any other aspect of life. This makes research on this theme very complex and the results difficult to interpret. But there is research and the research is valid and reliable.

Research literature shows three risk factors that make children in childcare facilities more susceptible for problems in their later development: Age, temperament and home-situation. The first risk factor is early age. Babies are more vulnerable than older children. Multiple studies show that childcare in the first year can increase the possibility of developing problem behavior in later life (Lamb, 1998; NICHD, 2005). The second risk factor is difficult temperament of the child, for example, irritability or social anxiety (Volling & Feagans, 1995). The last risk factor is an undesirable home-situation. Children who lack attention and developmental opportunities in their own home are more vulnerable in childcare facilities (Riksen-Walraeven, 2000).

So is Marek Harman right? Is childcare detrimental for child development? No. First of all I want to emphasize that children with these risk factors have a higher chance of developing problem behavior in later life. This doesn’t mean they will all have problems. There is a huge difference. Second, there is a very important protective factor we haven’t mentioned yet: the quality of the childcare facility. This protective factor is so strong it can reduce and even take away risk factors. If the quality of the childcare facility is high, it doesn’t have any negative effect on child development, not even when there are risk factors to be taken into account with, for example when the child is very young (Riksen-Walraeven, 2000).

Even for normal children, without risk factors, the quality of childcare can make a difference. High quality childcare can have long-term positive effects on the social and personality development of children, on their language skills and school results (Andersson, 1989, 1992; Howes, 1990). A Canadian research by Hausfather, Toharia, LaRoche and Engelsmann  (1997) shows the decisive role of quality in childcare. They compared excellent childcare facilities with those of low quality. The longer children stayed in high quality childcare, the more they showed positive social behavior. But for facilities with low quality, the opposite applied: the longer children stayed, the more negative social behavior appeared. Quality is essential. Childcare of low quality has negative effects on development, but childcare of high quality can remove risk factors for children and can even enrich children and their development.

Childcare is not a peripheral phenomenon. It’s not an exception. People use childcare to make work combinable with a family. For a lot of them it’s a necessity to make ends meet. And even when it’s not, it is the right of both men and women to work and to combine this with a family. I propose we move on from this discussion and shift it from the blaming and shaming of people who use childcare, to the discussion of quality in childcare facilities. Because this is the challenging one. What is quality in childcare? What is important? And what do nurses need to know to be able to increase the quality in childcare facilities? The ProChil project is a good place to start this discussion. In our attempt to create a new curriculum for nurses we will focus on how to provide nurses with the skills they need to create high quality childcare facilities.


Andersson, B-E. (1989). Effects of public day-care: A longitudinal study. Child Development, 60, 857-866.

Andersson, B-E. (1992). Effects of day-care on cognitive and socioemotional competence of thirteen-year-old Swedish schoolchildren. Child Development, 63, 20-36.

Hausfather, A., Toharia, A., LaRoche, C. & Engelsmann, F. (1997). Effects of age of entry, day-care quality, and family characteristics on preschool behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38, 441-448.

Howes,C. (1990). Can the age of entry into child care and the quality of child care predict adjustment in kindergarten? Developmental Psychology, 26, 292-303.

Lamb, M.E. (1998). Nonparental child care: Context, quality, correlates, and consequences. In:W. Damon (Series Ed.) & I.E. Sigel & K.A. Renninger (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 4, Child psychology in practice (5th Ed., pp. 73-133).

NICHD. (2005). Child care and Child development. Results from the NICHD study of early child care and youth development. Guilford press. New York.

Riksen Walraven, J. M. A. (2000). Tijd voor kwaliteit in de kinderopvang. (Oratiereeks). Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA.

Volling, B.L. & Feagans, L.V. (1995). Infant day care and children’s social competence. Infant Behavior and Development, 18, 177-188.