The vast majority of Norwegian parents place their children in state-supported day care centers as soon as their maternity and paternity leave runs out, but many have worried about the effects of day care outside the home for those as young as one year. A new study suggests they have no need for a bad conscience.
Seven of 10 one-year-olds in Norway are placed in day care centers, called barnehager, according to the state public health institute (Folkehelseinstitutt, FHI). The country’s left-center coalition government has made a point of guaranteeing barnehage space for all one-year-olds, nationwide, to relieve pressure on working parents.
Debate has persisted, though, on whether it’s good for the children to be separated from their parents so early, and to spend long days away from home and in the care of others. Author Simen Tveitereid stirred controversy in 2008 with a book that questioned the effects of barnehage placement on the youngest children, calling the government’s guarantee of “full barnehage coverage” a “social experiment” with unproven results.
Now researchers at FHI and the Ministry of Education (Kunnskapsdepartementet) have published a report that they claim offers no evidence that it’s harmful for children as young as 12 months to be placed in day care. “Nor do we have any evidence that children who have been home until they are 18 months old are better equipped than children who have been cared for by others,” researcher and clinical psychologist Synnve Schjølberg told newspaper Aftenposten. “We can say this after having followed a large number of children from infancy until they’re five years old.”
The study involved 13,000 children, with parents of five-year-olds asked to fill out a form detailing their child’s development both in language and social skills. Their answers were compared to information on how children were cared for from birth until 18 months of age.
One of the researchers’ conclusions, reports Aftenposten, was that children cared for by others than their parents were not any more anxious or sad than those cared for at home. The researchers also took into account the parents’ own levels of education, household income, whether the children had siblings, any medical complications and other factors.
“The small differences we actually found suggest that for most children, it’s not reasonable to say that it’s harmful to begin in barnehage from 12 months,” Schjølberg told Aftenposten.
Tveitereid, once asked by the eduction minister to “stop spreading fear” about day care, dismissed the study, calling it more the results of a questionnaire than research. He said it didn’t relieve his worries about the effects of day care on one-year-olds, noting that it would be hard for many parents to “cross off boxes that indicate their children don’t function well.” He welcomes more research on the issue, though.
Kristin Halvorsen, Norway’s current education minister, supported the study in full and claimed it shows that day care is not harmful for children younger than 18 months. At least one parent interviewed at a local barnehage in Oslo agreed.
“We had long parental leave,” said Tor Asbjørn Hege, father of 13-month-old Linnea. “But now that she’s one year old, I think it’s healthy for her to be here. From her first day we saw her learning and being inspired by the older children, and she’s very social. It’s clear she likes being with other children.”
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