• Susan Bates is an early childhood teacher and lives in Auckland.

With stressed parents struggling to pay heavy mortgages or rising rents, more parents of very young children are working long hours to get by. But in many cases babies and toddlers are spending 40 to 50 hours a week in substandard care, in cramped environments with inadequate numbers of staff who are not happy and not coping.

In many suburban streets there are brightly coloured fences with signs advertising early childhood centres in positive tones, but these centres are usually businesses, and the business practices can mirror those in fast food outlets - with devastating consequences.

As a researcher, I founded the Teachers Advocacy Group, a loose Facebook network with hubs in many cities. We conducted a survey, asking teachers about conditions in their workplaces. We found a picture of stress, tiredness, guilt, sadness and frustration.

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Teachers and carers in early childhood are dedicated to the children they care for, but working conditions are affecting their health and mental well-being. This can only in turn, negatively impact on children's well-being.

In theory, services are highly regulated and many advertise qualified staff, but in practice, our regulations fall far short of international best practice.

The attachment relationship in the first years of life is the most important relationship for us all. It creates identity, gives us empathy, allows us to become good members of society, and nurtures our intelligence and our creativity. Without a good attachment relationship there are high risks of poor outcomes in the years that follow.

Carers must form close attachments to young babies to be cued into their needs. They must be adept at reading their emotions and needs. They need to be physically present and emotionally in tune with the baby. They need to be in a calm environment with plenty of space, good adult to baby ratios and a small group size.

Instead, in our centres, a room can have 20 babies or more, and four carers. Only two of these need be qualified. In fact, if the licence covers children in other rooms (a licence can cover 150 children), then the qualified staff may be elsewhere. Even for the qualified teachers, their training is unlikely to have included much detail on the needs of young babies, particularly their optimal mental health requirements.

Often babies spend all day in rooms that are crowded, chaotic and noisy. This is not conducive to fostering the relationships that young children need.

Our space regulations are low by international standards, falling into the bottom third of OECD countries. Our survey found that in rooms containing 20 babies and four carers, one of the carers would often be changing a nappy and another settling a crying child, leaving the other two staff members managing 18 infants and toddlers.

The survey also found that centres breach the very minimal regulations that we have - with teachers counted while in the office doing administration, teachers not allowed breaks because of staffing, and timesheets fabricated to look as if regulations are being maintained.

The good thing is, we know how to improve what we offer our youngest children. There have been several reports from advisory committees set up by Government and they all recommend the same things.

The office of the Children's Commissioner also produced a report with similar suggestions. The Brainwave Trust has been flagging major concerns about current practices, as have opposition politicians who are calling for quality, not just quantity, and have raised concern about the Government's policy of participation at the expense of quality.

We need qualified teachers, we need ratios of one carer to three for infants and toddlers, we need longer paid parental leave to support new parents and attachment relationships. We need smaller groups of babies (no more than eight), and we need more space for calm and unhurried discovery of the world in the context of secure relationships.

For these secure relationships, we also need staff who are well treated, and well supported, who will stay in their job and enjoy their time with those in their care. They need breaks, they need adequate sick leave, they need ongoing training, they need adequate pay and the chance and even the encouragement to raise concerns in their employment without victimisation.

Our survey and our email network paints a picture of carers with poor physical and mental health who want to do a better job. It's election year, and parents need to demand better for their children.