Five beautiful, plump babies sit in their high chairs in a semi-circle, waiting for lunch. They are eerily quiet. Two nursery staff move around preparing bowls, bibs and spoons. As I stand there, I am fixed upon by 10 huge round eyes. Is it my imagination or does it seem that their eyes are begging for interaction, for an adult smile? Maybe it is just that they are hungry? Meanwhile, a little four-month-old baby, recently fed and changed, has been put in a bouncy chair on the floor where she is just out of sight, momentarily, of a carer; she begins to cry plaintively. After a little while, a member of staff comes to cuddle her and settle her in a cot. Did she get her reassurance quickly enough? As quickly as a mother or father would have given it?
I don't know the answers - nor do many thousands of other mothers and fathers who take the decision every day to place their babies, from as young as four months, in a nursery. Even here, in this nursery in leafy Caterham, Surrey, with its clearly dedicated staff, those eyes make me feel uncomfortable. Instinctively, it doesn't feel quite right. But I question my response: perhaps it is simply because I belong to a transition generation. For most mothers in their 30s and 40s, our earliest years were firmly tied to our mother's apron strings, but we are abandoning that model of motherhood in droves - more than half of us now hand over the care of our baby to others for many hours a day, before they reach their first birthday.
In the past two decades, we have revolutionised how we care for children in the first three years of life. In 1981, only 24% of women returned to work within a year of childbirth, while in 2001 it was 67%, and the proportion is expected to continue rising. Childcare has become a boom industry. The vast bulk of that expansion has been in private day nurseries; since 1997 alone, the number of places has doubled, and it has quadrupled in a decade. Just over 200,000 children under three now attend a day nursery. It comfortably outstrips all other forms of non-family care for under-threes.
The revolution is visible all over the country; old petrol filling stations on busy roads are converted into nurseries, while others are tucked into the basements of expensive office blocks. They open at 7.30am and close at 6pm to accommodate the ever-lengthening working hours of busy parents. Some offer an astonishing range of activities, from music and baby yoga to French, plus the best organic food. And, of course, they cost the earth - a full-time place in a central London nursery can cost well over £1,000 a month. Nurseries have become parents' ideal choice of childcare, second only to grandparents.
But the popularity of this revolution is at odds with what the experts are saying. Over exactly the time period that the sector has boomed, research on both sides of the Atlantic has reached remarkably similar conclusions; namely, that large quantities of care in a day nursery before the age of three increases the incidence of insecurity and aggression in children, and that these damaging effects are still evident years later.
What is extraordinary is how little impact this research has had, so far, on either public perception or government policy. This is partly because most of the experts have preferred to keep their heads below the parapet, well aware of the kind of panic headlines that their findings could produce. They are terrified of thousands of already anxious parents waking up to a Daily Mail splash - "Day nurseries make children violent". They have preferred to lobby government from the inside. Meanwhile, the private-sector day nurseries mushroom unchecked, and government ignores the negative findings, evident even in its own research, driving ahead with its plans to develop day nurseries in the poorest communities under its Sure Start programme. Crucially, what gets blurred by the advocates of day care is that there is a crucial turning point in a child's life, between two and three years, when the impact of day nursery switches from negative to an unequivocal positive, providing a stimulus to cognitive and social development: the age of the child is the key.
The stakes are getting higher. Already Tony Blair has indicated that childcare will be the centrepiece of Labour's manifesto at the next election; he promised nursery education for all two-year-olds in a recent speech. Childcare is seen as the big idea that offers a win-win scenario, easing the burden on middle-England families, while also offering the Treasury the perk of getting more mothers into work and paying taxes. But increasingly many in the field of child development feel that we are making momentous decisions without informed public debate - and that those decisions could have disastrous consequences.
Safety first - why parents love nurseries
Parents like nurseries, and at the Asquith Court nursery in Caterham, it is not hard to see why. It is part of the biggest chain of nurseries in the country, with more than 100 sites, and many have waiting lists. "Safe, loved and learning" is Asquith Court's corporate motto, and it is an accurate assessment of what parents want from a nursery. Safety is the first priority for new parents, says the child expert Penelope Leach, and that increasingly leads parents to nurseries. "The very things which are least desirable about nurseries, such as a baby having several carers, strike parents as a safety measure because people can keep a check on each other. They're very nervous of trusting people such as nannies and childminders behind 'closed doors'."
The Asquith Court site is surrounded by fields and there is a big playground with a resident pet rabbit and a flock of ducks. Most importantly of all, there is very low staff turnover from a team of women, many of whom are extremely experienced and well trained. The manager, Sue Ambrose, is a motherly character who inspires trust. I watched toddlers daubing paint with toothbrushes while others enthusiastically sang nursery rhymes. The nursery's 62 children, ranging from four months to five years of age, are divided into three different age groups. Staff fill out a sheet for each infant under two every day, telling parents what their child has eaten, the pattern of their bowel movements, sleep and play.
But for all the undoubted warmth of this particular nursery, there are nagging concerns about the priorities of a private sector nursery. As company spokesperson, Marcia Viccars, puts it: "We have two sets of customers, the children and the parents." Inevitably, given the power of the parents, they are the customers whose priorities win out.
What parents want is a lot of information; they also want their offspring busy - lots of activities and lots of evidence of those activities - and they want education early. Given the cost of a private-sector nursery (about £1,000 a month for a full-time place for under-twos at Asquith Court), the customer-base is largely middle-class professional and managerial parents who are eager to give their children a head start at school.
One impression stuck in the memory: a toddler was daubing paint on a piece of paper. Beside her sat one adult encouraging her to copy a picture of a fish, while over her head hovered another adult urging her to get the blob of blue paint in the right place for the fish's eye; in the end, she grasped the child's hand and the brush to achieve the desired result. Such was the intrusiveness of the adult intervention, albeit kindly expressed, that one could only conclude that the primary beneficiary of this picture would be the parent at the end of the day.
Most parents find childcare a bewildering lottery. Just as they are struggling with becoming parents, they have to embark on the immensely difficult task of finding childcare that is affordable, convenient and of good quality. Two years ago, Stella, a company executive, put her five-month-old baby into full-time care at a central London nursery. She felt lucky to find an available place, such was the scarcity - even though it was at the astronomical cost of £14,500 a year. "There are scare stories about childminders and nannies; some are wonderful, some are not. But checks are in place in nurseries; if someone is having a bad day in nursery, there is someone else around. For very young children, it's probably better to have that one-on-one care, but I was nervous and I wasn't sure I could find the right person."
Sue, a freelance publicist, wanted all the organised activities for her child and she felt that a childminder wouldn't be able to keep him stimulated. Since her son started at six months, she has become a passionate advocate of nurseries: "Among my friends from the antenatal group, I see a big difference between those who are in nursery and the rest - they've a greater verbal ability, they express themselves better and they have better social skills. At nursery, they all have to wait until everyone has some food, so when he goes to school he will be much more prepared."
Many of the mothers returning to work who I spoke to while researching this piece were agreed on one thing; however mixed their experience of nurseries and the childcare lottery had been, they felt strongly that they couldn't have coped with being full-time mothers. They wanted to work and often their income was crucial to the families' finances.
Only one mother was unhappy with the nursery her child attended. Leach points out that parents are understandably very reluctant to admit anxieties about their choice of childcare, but Carol was the exception. She has always worked, first as a shop assistant and now as a nursery nurse, because the family needs her income. Her third child, a daughter, is now 17 months and at a Sure Start nursery every day from 8.15am to 5.15pm. She had misgivings from the start. "I've worked in nurseries so you can see what goes on; they don't always provide the care they should. It makes me really sad that people like that go into that kind of job. It's not about bad abuse, but about not responding to the children in the way they should.
"My daughter's development doesn't match up with where I think she should be. At the nursery, they haven't drawn her out and it took her a long time to settle in. The staff at the nursery don't know her as well as I think they should; it's a good nursery, so is it that my expectations are too high? I'd love to stay home and look after her. I'd like to work part-time but that's not possible at the school nursery where I work. They grow up so quickly and you miss out on all the things they do. So I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
Too much too young - what the experts say
On the bookshelves of most parents there will be a tatty copy of at least one of Penelope Leach's books on raising children. She has picked her way carefully through the changing expectations of mothers, adapting earlier advice to a new generation of working mothers. She chooses her battles carefully, but she believes the day nursery debate is one she now has to get into. Since 1998, she has been co-director of the largest ever UK study of childcare from birth to school age, Families, Children and Child Care (FCCC). The first results are only now being submitted for academic publication, but initial findings fit with those from other studies in the US and the UK: "It is fairly clear from data from different parts of the world that the less time children spend in group care before three years, the better. Infants spending as little as 12 hours a week in day nurseries - this is such a low threshold that it covers almost all infants in this childcare setting - showed slightly lower levels of social development and emotional regulation (less enthusiastic cooperation, concentration, social engagement and initiative) as toddlers.
"The tendency of government policy for more day-nursery provision to the exclusion of other types of childcare is extremely short-sighted; it's easier for an infant to catch up on cognitive skills later on, but they can't catch up on insecure attachment. The trend towards more day nurseries is out of kilter with what the research is finding.
"We know from research that staff in nurseries tend to be firstly, more detached - less sensitive and responsive - towards the children and there is more "flatness of affect", a subtle but very important characteristic which means that there is no differentiation in response to a child, a sort of blandness.
"Somewhere after two years, as the children begin to relate more to each other than to the adult, then high-quality, group-based care becomes an unequivocal benefit. But for the first 18 months, all the international research shows us the importance of lots of attention from a carer who thinks the infant is the cat's whiskers. It may even be less important that those caring for the under two-year-olds are trained, as that they have the right attitude to children - that they are warm, responsive, talkative and funny."
Leach's conclusion is that while it might be possible to provide good-quality nursery care with well-paid, highly motivated staff for the under-threes (and some, including the well-funded government's centres of excellence, manage it), it is very expensive because the ratio of carers to infants needs to be as close to one-on-one as possible. At present, the state-regulated ratio is one adult to three for the under-twos, and one to four for two-year-olds. Instead of the government expanding nursery daycare for infants, Leach has been urging Treasury officials in her submissions to their childcare review to give parents a range of choices including longer and better-paid parental leave policies. She also argues strongly in favour of giving parents a choice of childcare, with more support for non-group based care such as childminders and nannies, which both come very well out of the research. As president of the National Childminding Association, she advocates a shift in tack to support these Cinderellas of the British childcare system. Their numbers dropped dramatically in the late 90s from 120,000 to 70,000, hit by a few dramatic cases of children who died while being cared for by people described as childminders, even if in fact they were au pairs. Her concern is that the adverse publicity of a dramatic case of abuse gets headlines; an increase in emotional insecurity of children spread across thousands of children does not.
The two biggest longitudinal studies in the world on the impact of childcare on infants have come to strikingly similar conclusions. In America, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) published conclusions last summer that were remarkably similar to those of the UK study, the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE). Both make for uncomfortable reading. The NICHD, which has been following more than 1,000 children since 1991, concluded that, "The more time children spend in childcare from birth to age four-and-a-half, the more adults tended to rate them as less likely to get along with others, as more assertive, as disobedient and as aggressive. It also found that group care is more punitive than other forms of childcare. The EPPE study focused predominantly on the impact of pre-school education on three- and four-year-olds. It concluded that it was of great benefit for cognitive and social skills, but buried in the small print it acknowledged that "high levels of group care before the age of three (and particularly before the age of two) were associated with higher levels of anti-social behaviour at age three" (interestingly, it can improve infants cognitive skills). But the EPPE study acknowledged that while high-quality group care could reduce the level of "anti-social/worried behaviour", it could not eliminate it.
All this research is grist to the mill of Professor Jay Belsky, of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck, University of London. An American with a florid turn of phrase, he has cast himself since the mid-80s in the role of the Jeremiah foretelling doom as day-nursery provision first took off in the US. He claims that his career has been blighted ever since. Initially, he found no evidence that daycare carried risks, but, "In 1986, I began to see a slow, steady trickle of disconcerting evidence which I could no longer explain away and maintain my intellectual honesty. I pointed out that the evidence indicated risks firstly, when care was initiated in the first year of life, secondly, when infants received daycare of more than 20 hours a week and which was continuous until school. At the time, both were rapidly becoming the norm in America. I was portrayed as someone who wanted women in the kitchen; people who had lauded my career now said I had manipulated and distorted the evidence."
Belsky's concerns and the ensuing row was one of the factors which led to the setting up of the NICHD study at the cost of more than $100m (£54m). Belsky worked on the study; he argues that it has vindicated his concerns. The team observed mother-infant interaction for the first 36 months of the baby's life: "We found that the more time the infant spent in care, the less sensitive and harmonious relations were between mother and child at six, 15, 24 and 36 months.
"The biggest risk factor for insecure attachment is insensitive mothering and the impact of that is significantly increased by any one of three risk factors: more than 10 hours of nursery daycare a week in the first year; a change in the childcare arrangements in the infant's first year, and low-quality daycare.
"In the late 1990s, the NICHD studies concluded that the more time children spent in childcare, irrespective of its quality, the more aggressive and disobedient they were between two and six years old, especially so for group care. The mantra in childcare became quality, quality, but the outcomes we saw were not just a function of low quality. What we found was that good quality care predicted better cognitive and linguistic functioning - there's good news as well as bad here - but the more time in care, the more aggressive the child was at two. That aggression disappeared by three but was back at four-and-a-half and older. Those kids scored higher for aggression, disobedience and neediness."
Belsky concedes that he is talking about small average increases - day nurseries do not lead to an increased number of psychopaths - but argues that if large amounts of care in day nurseries for infants are now the norm of American childhood, and likely to become the norm in the UK, the incremental impact has to be considered.
"We have to ask whether a teacher with a class of 30 children, most of whom have been in daycare, is likely to find half of them are a little more aggressive and disobedient? Would that mean the teacher has to spend more time managing the class rather than teaching it? We have to consider the consequences of more and more children spending more and more time in group childcare arrangements, most of which are not high quality. No one wants to be responsible for making mothers feel guilty, but this has to be openly and honestly discussed."
What concerns Belsky since he arrived in the UK in 1999 is that the UK is gradually adopt ing the American model of high maternal employment, mothers going back to work earlier and high levels of daycare. He has made himself the bete-noire of many researchers on both sides of the Atlantic with his tendency to use inflammatory metaphors; he talks of "a steady trickle of pollution seeping into a lake" as cohorts of daycare children grow up.
While Belsky seems happy to stir up controversy and is, therefore, anathema in some government policymaking circles, his close colleague at Birkbeck, Professor Ted Melhuish, picks his words more carefully. He is probably the most respected academic in the field of childcare in the UK; he worked on the EPPE study, and is heading the £16m evaluation of the government's flagship programme for pre-school children, Sure Start. He has just completed a review of all the international research on childcare for the National Audit Office, which found other studies, such as one from Norway, substantiating the Anglo-American research.
"The quantity of daycare under the age of two affects some aspects of social development - there's a slight risk of increased disruptive, anti-social behaviour and children less likely to obey rules and be less cooperative," he tells me. "You start to see it once children are spending 20-25 hours in daycare and the risks increase when they are spending more than 40 hours in daycare, which is not atypical if the woman is in full-time employment with two commutes."
What preoccupies him is whether it is possible to identify what causes these negative consequences, and if they could be reduced: "We know the importance for infants in the first two years of responsive, individual attention for significant parts of the day to develop their socio-interactive skills. We also know that the responsiveness of group care is much less than in other childcare settings such as childminders. To improve the responsiveness of group care requires maintaining very high staff-infant ratios and keeping staff turnover down to an absolute minimum: both are very expensive."
High turnover is a persistent problem in day nurseries in the UK and it typically runs at 30 to 40%. Low pay, low status and poor training combine to attract what one researcher described as the "dregs of the labour market". Quality childcare will, simply, not be widely available unless the right people can be attracted to do the job.
Melhuish agrees with Leach that, "for the first 18 months to two years of life, the cost of good-quality care is potentially very high, and is comparable in cost to paid parental leave for two years." Like Belsky and Leach, he has been giving advice to the government that unless you compromise on quality, the cost of subsidising childcare for the under-twos is broadly comparable to generous parental leave. He points to the case of Sweden as evidence of what parents might want if they had a real choice: "The Swedish case is very revealing - there was high-quality infant care available to all and heavily subsidised. It was widely used in the 70s and 80s, but in the early 90s, parental leave was increased and now there is remarkably little use of childcare under 18 months. Parents voted with their feet