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Childcare (early childhood development)

This page explains why early childcare is such an important issue and why a lack of high-quality care is a serious problem for their families and whole communities, as well affecting their chance of getting an education.

The global childcare crisis

Childcare is often considered to be an issue for mothers and families to sort out. However, many poor women cannot stay at home to look after their children because they need to go out to work and so they must find alternative childcare arrangements.

Yet in many parts of the world finding quality, affordable childcare is almost impossible. This has a serious affect on children, their families, the communities they live in and their wider economies.

Why is childcare important?

As well as providing safety and protection from harm, good quality childcare supports all aspects of a child’s early development. It’s important for healthy brain and language development and preparing a child to get the most out of school. Quality care creates the right environment for a child to develop a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem and wellbeing.

A child who is given insufficient care and stimulation in the first two years of life could find their brain development is harmed. This means they are hindered from reaching their full potential in life.
If a carer can’t be found, such as a grandparent, older sibling or hired help, then parents may be forced to leave young children unattended while they go out to work, exposing them to a range of dangers. Even if an elderly relative or older child is available, the quality of the care cannot be guaranteed.

Older children kept out of school to care for younger siblings may be disrupting their own education.

All over the world, the burden of childcare falls disproportionately to women. A study of 37 countries found that, on average, women carry out 75% of childcare activities. Yet half of the world’s women aged over 15 are currently part of the labour force and 72% of these live in poor countries. This creates the problem of young children with no proper childcare. 

How does lack of childcare affect education?

High-quality childcare is essential for a child’s development and prepares them to learn well when they start school. Scientific evidence shows that the biggest brain development happens in the first two years of life and that stress and lack of stimulation can hinder this process.

Poor brain development in the early years of a child's life can affect their ability to learn in school and also have a negative effect on their health, behaviour and social development. This in turn can lead to poor performance in education.

In contrast, children who receive the kind of stimulation at a young age provided by quality childcare are more likely to do well at school and have greater opportunities for success. Where children attend early childhood centres, the positive effects of good care have been seen way beyond primary school and cover all aspects of life.

Affordable childcare leaves older siblings, especially girls, free to go to school, which will improve their chances in life. This is particularly important for adolescent girls for whom staying in school has been shown to improve their chances hugely. 

What happens when quality affordable childcare isn't available?

Without access to affordable, high-quality childcare, parents and caregivers are forced to seek alternatives that do not guarantee quality. Some mothers take low-quality, low-paying jobs that allow them to work from home or bring young children to work.

Others look for alternate childcare options, including:

  • Grandparents

In many families, grandparents - and particularly grandmothers - provide childcare. Childcare can also fall to grandparents if the parents have migrated to find work or have died. This option can free up older children from childcare to attend school - but can also cause serious hardship for grandparents.

  • Older siblings

Older children, particularly girls, are often called upon to provide childcare and are kept out of school to do this. In parts of rural Ethiopia, for example, more than half of girls aged between five and eight provide unpaid childcare every day. There is a risk of poor childcare provided by relatively young children - meaning the young carers themselves miss out on education that could improve their chances of a better life.

  • Unsupervised children

Parents may be forced to leave young children alone while they work. In a survey of 53 low and middle-income countries, an average of 20% of under-fives were left alone or with a sibling for at least an hour a week. In the poorest countries this rises to almost half. This can be deadly as children are left with no one to care for them or protect them. Even if they avoid accidental injury, studies have shown children who are routinely left unattended do less well at school and later on in life.

  • Domestic workers

Some families may be able to afford to pay a domestic worker to look after their children. However, paid care does not guarantee quality as many caregivers are untrained and unregulated. They are themselves vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

  • Organised childcare

Organised childcare centres vary enormously, both in terms of cost and quality of care. Where they are available and affordable they may be unregulated or overcrowded.

Case study on childcare: Kidogo, East Africa

In urban slums in East Africa, mothers who needed to go out to work faced a dilemma. Should they leave their young children at home alone? Or should they take an older child out of school to look after them? Or should they leave them with an untrained local caregiver?

The social enterprise Kidogo worked to address this by building community hubs to provide good childcare services with qualified teachers. They also offered nutritious meals and health monitoring. The community hubs also provided support and resources for women to train to set up their own early childhood development hubs, giving them employment and providing affordable care for other families.

Recommendations about childcare

  1. Parents and others who look after young children need support to provide the right care to allow those children to grow and develop to their full potential. The options include:
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave
  • High-quality childcare centres
  • Social protection programmes
  • Regulation of childcare

Early childcare is so important that it can no longer be considered the responsibility of families alone. Getting it right is the first step in a child’s educational journey and a chance for a healthy life.

Theirworld has come up with five recommendations to tackle the issue:

  • Provision of access to high-quality early childhood care for all children, in particular the poorest and most marginalised. Governments should work to provide universal childcare by 2030, to guarantee all children have the chance to succeed at school and reach their full potential. Childcare must be seen as important as education and health and be built into public services.
  • Employment policies must be set up that improve and protect parents’ childcare options. For example, this includes guaranteed paid maternity and paternity leave. On top of this, parents must be allowed to feel they can take the leave they are entitled to without fear of negative results.
  • Social protection and social service schemes must be expanded and adapted to properly support caregivers. In many cases existing programmes don’t reflect real-life childcare. For example, where grandparents are caring for children this can make them poorer because they can’t work themselves and have an adverse effect on their health. Better pensions and more supportive programmes would help them to look after their grandchildren.
  • Improve research and study of early childcare. Not enough is known about how parents in developing countries cope with balancing work and childcare, or what pre-school child care they choose. More information would assist the creation and implementation of new policies and programmes addressing the childcare crisis.
  • Childcare in emergency situations and conflict is often overlooked. However, young children living in dangerous situations are particularly vulnerable so need high-quality childcare. Childcare is especially important in emergency and conflict settings, where caregivers can be ill, injured or dead or where children are orphaned or unaccompanied. Services must be established to set up safe, quality childcare.
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