The inconvenient truth about being a parent

I turned on ABC Radio 702 this morning on the way to the city and heard an interview with Gillian Calvert, the groovy Commissioner for Children and Young People. She made a statement that caused the hostess of the program to do a double-take. Her message was that the best place for babies under 12 months was at home with their parents.

And she is advocating for a 2-year maternity/paternity leave. I was impressed with her courageous statement. But although her courage is admirable in the face of protests from staunch women’s libbers, guilty mums and women who have had to return to work, her statement is backed by solid research: Findings indicate that the first 12 months of a baby’s life is vitally important.

This is the time before the brain matures the most important part of our social and emotional behaviour, namely our ability to self regulate. What does this mean? Basically, a baby is like a tiny joey in a pouch – emotionally naked – during this first year of life. Stress or upset can only be resolved by an outside source, and the preferred outside source (or, in the language of attachment research, the principal attachment figure), is usually the mother. This is because the baby already knows mum from day one: her voice is recognised from life in her womb, and the smell of her milk can be discriminated from the milk of other mothers. Ideally, mum teaches the baby how to self soothe; signals when fear is justified; laughs away stress that is unnecessary; teaches that pain can be eased; demonstrates that she understands your needs and can help make everything better.

Around 12 months the baby starts to internalise these processes, but the establishment of the way we relate to others takes longer than 1 year, so there is still a way to go. The lesson that is learnt up until age 3 is, above all, how to trust and how to be in a close relationship. That first relationship becomes the proto-type for all others, and it is based on mutual love.

But not all of us learn that relationships can be close and that adults can be trusted. Secure attachment, which is important for healthy development, is only attained by about 66% of the population. Children can become attached to others, of course, including to their child carers. But only 42% of children do, according to a recent research finding. And a large percentage of those children are already securely attached to their parents. The alternative to secure attachment is insecure attachment, which is connected to a variety of psychological disorders.

There are probably many reasons why the Commissioner advocates for a 2 year maternity/paternity leave. One would be the finding that breastfeeding should be continued until 2 years of age, and working mothers find it difficult to continue breastfeeding. Another would be the research showing high cortisol levels in young children in child care. It appears that they find child care stressful, whereas at home or in a family day care setting, those stress levels are not nearly as high. Apparently all novelty is somewhat stressful for babies, and there is no lack of novel stuff happening in a room full of toddlers. Researchers have found similar stress in animals, and it may be that the stress in young children is related to being with a roomful of peers.

I called my blog Early Childhood Matters, because it does. Early childhood sets up foundations that may last a whole lifetime. It’s an inconvenient truth, I know. But this morning Gillian Calvert dared to voice it. And she got it right.