My warning to parents is simple: one in
five children put into nursery early will develop mental health problems'
A paragon of bronzed Australian manhood, Steve Biddulph is not. He is tall, thin and toothy, with dark hair frosting at the temples, and a voice so soft you strain to hear it. Endearingly, when asked to describe himself, he says: "I'm awkward, anxious, gangling and uncoordinated, but it has proved…" He pauses. "No, it's too self-indulgent to talk about it." Oh, go on, I say. "No, I can't." I think he was going to say that it has proved to be an advantage - because, paradoxically, his mildness of manner gives weight and potency to his words.
This 53-year-old author of some of the world's most popular parenting books - four million sales and counting - is, in his quiet way, angry about the increasing use of day care for babies. He argues that placing children younger than three in nurseries risks damaging their mental health, leaving them aggressive, depressed, antisocial and unable to develop close relationships in later life. This, indeed, is the subject of his new book, Raising Babies, published tomorrow.
The Tasmania-based therapist, whose previous bestsellers include Raising Boys, directs his gentle wrath at the one in 20 British parents who "slam" their children into full-time nursery care, from 8am to 6pm, from the age of six months.
But isn't he just stating the obvious, I ask? No mother uses day care as a first choice. In an ideal world, most would rather stay at home, for the baby's first year at least, but financial considerations force them back to work. "Mmm, mmm," Biddulph says in that earnest, empathic way therapists have. "Money certainly comes into it. But the 'slammers', as I call them, tend to be affluent, urban professional couples -so they do have a choice. It is the cultural norm for everyone in their circle to use day care."
In a whispery, Antipodean accent, Biddulph concedes that what he is saying can seem obvious, however: "Only, now, there is hard science to back up the common sense. One in five children put into nursery too early develops mental health problems. If you treble the hours of care, you treble the damage.
A new study in the
"The National Institute of Child Health and Development in the US, meanwhile, conducted a recent study of 1,000 children, which showed that three times as many children - 17 per cent - had noticeable behaviour problems in the 'more than 30 day care hours a week' group, while only six per cent had these problems in the 'under 10 hours a week' group."
So what advice would he give Tony Blair, or indeed that father
of a new-born child, David Cameron? "I'd say they should give parents an
actual choice: a guaranteed return to work; the
possibility of job sharing; flexible work hours and financial support for while
they are still at home. I'd also say look at the Scandinavian model. They have
12 months' parental leave there. It's not gendered, so you can swap. You can do
half and half, or both at the same time. It works. Even though the Swedes spend
six times as much as the British on crèche facilities, they hardly ever use
them. There are only 300 six-month-old babies in
Biddulph paints a grim picture of British nurseries: "Babies lying in rows of cots, then milling about in garish rooms through their toddler years, aching for one special adult to love them." What no one likes to talk about, he says, is that, in nursery care, children are often looked after in bulk - on a 1:3 or 1:8 ratio, compared with 1:1 at home. "It's like fast food, we can enjoy the convenience of drive-through." The nursery staff, he adds, are often underpaid teenagers with minimal qualifications, with a turnover rate of 40 per cent a year. "The worst nurseries are negligent, frightening and bleak - a nightmare of bewildered loneliness."
I ask if there is anything more than anecdotal evidence to prove that sending under-threes to nursery leads to mental health problems. "You can measure rising levels of the stress hormone cortisol in a baby's saliva. It is so sensitive, you can take a sample from a stressed baby then, after it has had a cuddle from its mother, take another reading and it will have dropped.
The cortisol readings for children in nursery were double what they were at home." For babies under a year old you need a one-to-one carer - the same one - so that the baby can build up a relationship. "Brain development depends upon this fine-tuning between the baby and the carer."
I tell him that we have three young children and that, when my wife went back to work, each time we hired a nanny. "Well, nannies come out a lot better in the research than nurseries," he says, "because it is a reasonable imitation of what would happen with the mother at home. Stable, kind and committed. Nannies can work well as a halfway solution, but only if parents are lucky with the person they find."
Isn't all this utopian theorising of his just about making working mothers feel guilty, I ask? "Mothers are adults and we infantilise them if we say we mustn't make them feel guilty. They are grown-ups who can think for themselves. They know that guilt is in their minds for a reason. Guilt is the reason we don't drive at 100 miles an hour through a built-up area."
Some "slammers", he suggests, end up never bonding
with their children: "They can never get the rhythm. The danger for people
who are only with their children half the time is that their children won't
want to know them when they grow up. There are many people in
Crikey, as Australians are wont to
say. But Biddulph can get away with this generalisation because it turns out that he was born and
How was his relationship with his father? "Attenuated: 10 phone calls a year. But we really got to work on it over 12 months, then he got liver cancer and was dead within 12 weeks. We had done the hard stuff and could just enjoy each other's company and hang out."
So Biddulph wasn't in day care as a baby - yet he turned out "awkward and anxious". We'll let it go, because he also turned out to be successful in his career. And, judging by his books, he seems to have been a good father to his two children: a son, aged 22, and a daughter, 15.
Does he feel under pressure to have a perfect family? "I
never do media in my own country, so as not to expose my children to that
pressure." He and his wife, Shaaron, have been
together for 30 years, he says, and married for 22. "We were hippies. We
got married because the hospital in
It is time for his close-up now. The Sunday Telegraph's photographer has arrived. As the picture desk has requested a baby to be in the shot, we are also joined by my one-year-old son, Joseph, and his nanny, Stacy. Biddulph muses that it was lucky that he said positive things about nannies.
As a final thought, I ask him about the self-help book industry: doesn't it work by creating problems? "I hate the self-help industry," he says. "I think it's a dreadful genre." So he doesn't think he's part of it? "No. I don't think you can change your life overnight. A book can be like a friend who helps you get a sense that other people have been there. But there are no formulas for happiness. There is only one thing that will buy wisdom in this life and that is suffering."
Crikey again. He sounds like a flagellant. "No, it's not that. It's just, if you can get through a bad time in a marriage, say, you're going to be much better and stronger for it. Some day you will wake up and feel stronger because you have dealt with something other people haven't."
In his case? He pauses before answering. "A miscarriage. It was a tough time in our relationship. But what I mean is that, generally, impressive people never have an easy life."
Life is so unfair for people who have had an easy time of it, I tease: I blame the parents. "Well, it's a high-risk strategy to advocate bad parenting," he counters dryly. Touché.
• Raising Babies: Should Under 3s Go To Nursery?, is available for £7.99, plus 99p p&p. To order, call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4115