More Babies on Board in Day Care

As parents search for group care for infants, some experts dispute the wisdom of such a step. CHILD-CARE BOOM

LESLIE GAUGHAN, 15 months old, knows very well who Mommy is. But when Mommy drops her off at the Mulberry Child Care Center at 6:45 every weekday, she reaches out to "Miss Kristine," her "primary caregiver" with whom she will spend the next eight hours.Leslie has been coming to Mulberry since she was nine months old. This is her home-away-from-home, as it is to 16 other infants ranging from two months to 17 months old. Though separated from the older children's area, the "baby room" with its fleet of cribs, rocking chairs, and changing tables is no less spacious and well equipped. Taking care of other people's babies is big business. The demand for infant programs has mushroomed, day-care specialists contacted across the country say. In Massachusetts, for example, the number of infants at day-care centers nearly doubled from 1985 to '90 (from 1,214 to 2,334), according to the state's Office of Children. Some experts, however, are voicing concerns that group day-care - which may be appropriate for preschoolers - is harmful to babies. Considering babies' intense physical and emotional needs and the inconsistencies in quality, staffing, and day-care regulations, the risk of harm is too great, they say.

Leach inflames debate No one has inflamed controversy more than Penelope Leach, a British child-care expert and author of a popular book "Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five." On a recent trip to the United States, she said babies should spend more time with their parents or with one caregiver in a homelike setting. In this month's Parenting magazine, Dr. Leach writes: "For infants, that vital, continuous one-on-one attention just cannot be achieved in a day-care center's group settings." "To say categorically that group care is wrong, and that kids belong with one adult either at home or in a family day-care setting, ignores the whole issue of quality," says Maryann Anthony, director of education for Mulberry Child Care Centers Inc. in Boston, which operates 11 centers in Massachusetts. At Mulberry centers, each infant is assigned a "primary caregiver" who is continuously responsible for every detail of that child's care - from feeding and diaper-changing, to emotional needs like being talked to and cuddled. The adult-to-baby ratio is 2 to 7, in accord with state law, and one adult is a primary caregiver to a maximum of four babies. Staff members say this ensures that babies will develop a healthy attachment to one person, instead of facing a confusing succession of strangers. The cente r charges $200 a week per infant, a mid-range price here. Mulberry's program exists in a state with tough day-care regulations, says the Children's Defense Fund, which has surveyed state child-care laws. In contrast, ABC-TV's "PrimeTime Live" recently showed graphic hidden-camera footage of child mistreatment in some centers in Louisiana. Besides mistreatment of older children, some babies were ignored and left in car seats all day. Reached in England by phone, Leach says current research shows "that if a baby doesn't get securely attached to his mother or to whomever is caring for him during the day, he may end up being the child in kindergarten who has had independence forced upon him, and who doesn't listen to adults, who is disruptive, and who is hard to teach." Though Mulberry's adult-infant ratio "is the best you'll find anywhere," Leach says, "I still must ask, what happens when [the primary caregiver] is sick or when she takes a break," or quits her job? "If you're a mother, you don't get breaks, or take an hour off for lunch. It's rough on mothers, but it's infinitely better for small babies." Leach, whose book has sold nearly 2 million copies in the US and has been translated into 28 languages, says she has "every sympathy" for mothers who must work for economic reasons. Her advice is, "think about domestic-based care" in one's own home or another mother's home, where a baby is more likely to get constant attention from one adult.

Fastest-growing segment Infants and toddlers are the fastest-growing segment of the child-care population, Mulberry executives say, and demand for day-care centers with infant programs is great. As of March 1990, nearly half the women with children less than a year old were in the paid work force, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But group care for infants, says Leach, raises troubling questions about the value American society places on parental love, and whether day-care "professionals" can emulate the same level of commitment. "It's extremely bad for parents' self-esteem to be told by a society that, 'look, you really aren't that important for your baby, and someone else can take as good care of your child as you can, she says. "Let's not kid ourselves that everyone who works with children loves those children! I'm not saying all [caregivers] are irresponsible or horrible people, I'm saying [parental care] is different." Mulberry workers point to the strong emotional attachment teachers feel for the infants. Kristine Beaudet, team teacher in the infant area, says she has a special "bond" with 15-month-old Leslie, for whom she has been primary caregiver. "She's really clingy to me. She sees me a lot more than she sees her mother," Ms. Beaudet says in an interview. How does Leslie's mother feel about that? "I think it's super," says Mrs. Gaughan, who works full-time as a staff manager at New England Telephone. "It makes me feel good to know there's someone she's really bonded with, and I don't feel the least bit threatened. When we get home, we play, and she laughs and says, 'Mama, Mama!' " Caregivers can help educate parents, says Marlene Mishkin, center director. "If there's a certain developmental stage the parents may not know about, we may say, 'your child is starting to rock back and forth on his hands and knees - I bet he's going to start crawling soon.' " Caregivers must keep the lines of communication open with the parents, Mishkin says, to make sure they feel at peace and pleased with the care. Initially, parents often feel overcome with guilt and uncertainty. "I give lots of hugs" to crying mothers on the first day, she says. Gaughan says both she and Leslie have adjusted well over time. "It's a matter of habits and comfort levels. Now when I drop her off, I give her kisses, and tell her Mommy loves her, and that I'll be back soon." Then Leslie toddles off to play, she says. "She's wonderfully cared for."

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