Key Points:

According to a recent UNICEF study, the majority of British youngsters are being cared for someone other than their mother before they turn a year old.

Today's Independent quotes the children's charity as having this to say: "The care of very young children is now becoming, in significant degree, an out-of-home activity in which governments and private enterprise are increasingly involved. In the United Kingdom, for example, a majority of mothers are now returning to full or part-time work within 12 months of giving birth."

Be you on the side of defending the use of childcare for the very young, or be you against it, surely this statistic is a little alarming.

It is known that children need to form a close bond with their mother - yes, ideally mother, although it can happen with father - in the first 12 months of life, with some commentators suggesting the first three years (about the age attachment parenting is practised until by some).

Again, from the UNICEF The Childcare Transition study, a warning that in their first year, the attention of a caring adult is key in order to develop communication skills.

"Neuroscientific research is demonstrating that loving, stable, secure and stimulating relationships with caregivers in the earliest months are critical for every aspect of a child's development," it states.

The effects of childcare can be offset by high quality childcare where the turnover of staff is minimal; by lots of quality time with parents around the care and by incremental use of childcare as the child ages.

We all know children from loving and happy homes who attend child care as young children and appear to grow up just fine.

But the UNICEF report, which also commented on New Zealand's early child care provisions, states quite baldly that poor quality child care is detrimental to children and increases the gap between haves and have-nots further down the track.

With the sheer volume of children being placed in childcare, we can be sure some of it is simply not up to scratch.

New Zealand did not do too badly in the study of how we treat our young (despite the alarmist headlines), placing us seventh equal behind acknowledged leaders in the area of secure parenting, the Nords.

Where we fell down was in the provision of parental leave - with 14 weeks, only Australia and the US are worse - and our child poverty rate is more than double the minimum standard.

So, John Key, what can be done? What about a few ideas?

1. Paying ideally mother, but father if he so chooses, a decent wage to stay at home and raise children under the age of three. This would not be paid per child, but simply per role. Some women go back to work because they want to but many because they have to. It would be great if every woman who wanted to stay at home with her young children could, because inevitably society as a whole benefits from securely attached children. Yes, some can be securely attached despite long hours in childcare ... But why not give mothers a real choice? We pay students to live while they undertake tertiary study (for the benefit of society); we pay pensioners (not very much) when they can not work, presumably another social good. For heaven's sake, we pay for people who blow themselves up in P labs to get top notch medical care and probably years of sickness benefits thereafter. Let's get our priorities right.

2. Let's be incredibly vigilant about our child care sector. Let's ensure carers get paid enough to make the job worth sticking at. There are homes that are so dysfunctional that some children are infinitely better off in care - they are an important part of the mix and should all be without blemish, and we need people to ensure that's the case.

3. Let's be incredibly vigilant about how benefits and other government monies are spent within families. In homes where multiple adults are getting benefits but there's a party raging every night, there is clearly something wrong.

This country does not spend a lot on child care and pre-school education, despite what some may say.

According to the study we spend less than Mexico, Portugal and Hungary. Not that we need to spend huge amounts more, but perhaps a different emphasis on how we spend might be in order. (We spend just 0.4 per cent of GDP; UNICEF recommends one per cent of GDP).

A new government might just provide the perfect time to give some thought to these hugely important matters.


Stories in today's news have raised the perennial issue of paedophile Santas. Great for some scary headlines of course, but time for a reality check.

If you are a normal, vigilant parent, and take your child for a photo or visit with Santa, there would be little opportunity for him to victimise your child. Let's get a grip and focus on some real problems!

Picture above: Children at a kindergarten in China walk in snake formation. Photo / Getty Images