National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Child Development Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Madison
What does it mean when a young child calls the child care provider "Mommy", or treats her like mother?
For the mother, it often means confused, strong feelings, including jealousy, anger, and guilt. Many employed parents are proud of their child's independence. But they also can feel uneasy about leaving their children in the care of others. They wonder: Should I spend more time with my child? Am I being a good mother? If their child is in all-day care, they may wonder if a strong parent-child relationship will develop. When her child calls the day care provider, "Mommy," a mother might ask herself: Who's the real Mommy here?
Child care providers can also have confused feelings when a child calls them "Mommy". Embarrassment may be felt at first, along with a bit of pride and pleasure. Good child care providers love the children in their care. It feels good to know you are loved back. But you might feel guilty as well, knowing that you aren't really the mother of this child.
What can research tell us about this? First, babies and caregivers really do form strong emotional bonds with each other, not unlike the bonds of parents and their infants. But the research evidence also shows that babies in full-day care still maintain the strongest attachment to their parents.
Infants develop their earliest emotional bonds to others beginning around six months of age. Developing a secure attachment relationship with at least one other person is one of the most important tasks of infancy. A baby needs to trust that his or her needs will be met. The attachment figure is the person who the infant:
The quality of attachment can be observed when the child greets
the adult after an absence. If the infant approaches the adult,
seems happy to see them, and is comforted by them, it is likely
that a "secure attachment" exists. About three-fourths
of infants have a secure attachment with their mothers by age
The remaining one-fourth have insecure attachments - they are strongly attached, but the infant is not easily calmed or reassured by the adult. Some of them avoid the adult when she or he returns. Others give a mixed message - they go to the adult, then seem to resist being comforted. They may push off if held, or even cry as if angry.
Have you observed this? Child care professionals verify with their own experience what researchers have observed in controlled experiments; infants form strong, secure attachments, not just to parents, but also to child care providers. They also form secure attachments with other family members. In fact, some children even form something like an attachment with inanimate objects like their "security blankets"!
Does the provider replace the parent? The short answer is "No." Researchers have investigated this possibility, and two of their research projects are worth describing in detail.
Some agricultural communes (kibbutz) in Israel have used a
form of day care that looks extreme by American standards. Group
child care begins at the age of four days, when the baby is brought
home from the hospital. The baby sleeps and lives in an infant
house under the care of a trained caregiver, called a metapelet.
The parents may see and care for the baby as much as they like.
Typically the parents return to work within six weeks. By the
age of 18 months, most parents see the baby once each day for
about three hours in the evening. The baby returns to the infant
house to sleep.
The researchers asked: Will the infant be better able to use the metapelet or the mother to calm its fears? The investigators observed the infants using each adult to calm themselves after a stressful separation. The results showed that the infants were more secure with their mothers.
Given the small amount of time the mothers and their babies spent together, this was a somewhat surprising finding. We know that attachment is not a matter of biological bonding as it is with some other animals, for example, geese. Attachments are not formed immediately after birth but develop over time. For example, babies who are adopted early are no different from biological babies in their attachments to the parents who rear them.
So why did the babies have more effective attachments with their mothers on the kibbutz? Perhaps the mothers provided special attention to the infants. The metapelet, remember, had other infants to attend to during the day as well.
This idea is supported by research on American mothers who are employed full time outside the home. Many of them compensate for being away all day by giving their children extra attention in the evening. One study found that they spent as much time in high quality interaction with their children each day as non-working mothers did with their children.
With the growing number of infants in full-day care, American
researchers have also wondered about child care providers becoming
like mothers to young children. In one study, each infant or toddler
was videotaped in a somewhat stressful situation. To one side
of the room was the child's mother, and to the other side was
the child's provider. The adults were instructed not to talk or
gesture to the child. Who would the child go to when stressed?
The results showed that the children spent much more time close to the mother than to the provider (and much more time close to the provider than to a stranger in the room). The infants were also most likely to share toys with, talk to, and touch their mothers. And they were more likely to do these things with their child care provider than with a stranger.
The studies agree on two points. First, infants form secure attachments with their providers. Second, providers do not replace parents. The infant-parent attachment remains the most important emotional bond in the young child's life.
We began by noting that parents and providers alike are somewhat
confused and embarrassed when a child calls the provider "Mommy."
But how does the child feel?
Chances are good that the child doesn't know or care if you are embarrassed or jealous. From the child's point of view, all that matters is that he or she develops a secure attachment relationship in every important setting in his or her life. If this happens, then the child has a better chance of developing well socially, emotionally, and intellectually.
Clearly, parents and providers do not compete for the affection of young children. Providers are not substitute or alternate parents - they are supplementary care givers. They supplement and support the efforts of parents to raise their children well.
If a child feels a trusting, secure, loving relationship with the child care provider, parents should rejoice. Even if the child slips up and calls another adult "Mommy," the real mother can rest assured that she still has a special place in her child's life. She can be thankful that she has found a loving person in the community to help her raise her children.
Belsky, J., Lerner, R.M., & Spanier, B.G. (1984). The Child
in the Family. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, pp. 37-58.
Farran, D.C., & Ramey, C.T. (1977). Infant day care and attachment behaviors toward mothers and teachers. Child Development, 48, 1112-1116.
Fown, N. (1977). Attachment of kibbutz infants to mother and metapelet. Child Development, 48, 1228-1239.
FORMAT AVAILABLE:: Internet
DOCUMENT REVIEW:: Level 3 - National Peer Review
DOCUMENT SIZE:: 12K or 5 pages
ENTRY DATE:: May 1996
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