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Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001

Caring for Infants and Toddlers: Analysis and Recommendations
Mary B. Larner Richard E. Behrman Marie Young Kathleen Reich


A tiny hand clasping the finger of a large hand—it is a familiar image. An image of infancy that evokes the baby's vulnerability and trust, and the adult's gentleness and responsibility. An image of caring. Behind the image is a story of family and societal choices. Do the baby's mother and father hold jobs? What were their options for returning to work or staying with their newborn? Perhaps the large hand belongs not to a parent but to a teacher in a child care center, a neighbor who takes children into her home, or the baby's grandmother. Who else is nearby in the care setting? Are other large hands reaching out to hold the baby, or are other small hands reaching up for the adult?

This journal issue is about the care of the nation's youngest children, those who have not yet turned three. As used here, the term "care" encompasses a rainbow of different care settings and caring individuals—parents and grandparents, nannies and neighbors, family child care providers and child care centers. The journal issue compares our understanding of the caregiving that babies need with the capacity of today's parents to ensure that those needs are met day after day.

Why focus just on children under age three? The decision is controversial. Because development is continuous, categories based on age can be artificial and misleading.1 Nevertheless, the "under-threes" have been singled out in recent years. Sparked by the Carnegie Corporation's Starting Points report in 19942 and spurred by newly popularized research on brain development3, media attention to infants and toddlers surged during the 1990s.4 Amidst the excitement, some exaggerated claims were made about the uniqueness of the first years of life, prompting the National Academy of Sciences to caution that the focus on the period from birth to age three "begins too late and ends too early."5 We agree. No claim is made here that development stops or even pauses at a child's third birthday party. Instead, we distinguish this age group because the responsibility for children who are still so dependent and vulnerable poses unique demands on caregivers and care settings. A baby depends utterly on his or her caregiver to make the vast world safe, manageable, and welcoming. To share the care of a child who cannot yet walk or talk carries special meaning and weight for all involved.

All the same, the special character of the earliest years of life confounds policymakers, professionals, and the public. What is the best care that is feasible to provide to infants and toddlers, now that more than half of America's babies have a mother who works outside the home? There are over 11 million children under age three in the United States, and this year nearly 5 million of them will spend about 25 hours a week in the care of someone other than a parent.6 This is a revolution in caregiving, and it leaves Americans uneasy.7 Is there a single desirable balance between care by parents and by others, or are there many appropriate solutions? Parental decisions regarding both employment and child care reflect the family's circumstances and preferences, to be sure, but they are also influenced by public attitudes, employer policies, and government programs. By improving the caregiving options available to families, society can support the well-being of both families and children—if we can come to agreement on our goals and priorities. That is the terrain covered in this journal issue.

In emphasizing the balance families strike between employment and caregiving, this journal issue leaves out many aspects of care that shape infants' development. Mentioned but not discussed in detail are economic supports, health care, early intervention services for infants with developmental delays or disabilities, parent education and support programs, and the child welfare system that steps in when parental care is inadequate. These are important services, critical to the well-being of many children. Two reports included in this issue, one by Levine and Smith and one by Bodenhorn and Kelch, describe innovative efforts to strengthen and integrate health, parenting, and child development services. However, these allied service systems have been addressed in earlier issues of The Future of Children, and they are not examined again here. Instead, this issue focuses on the question of whether enough is being done to support the everyday caregiving on which infants and toddlers rely so trustingly.

The first three articles included in this issue review recent research on child development, child care, and public attitudes that has emerged over the last ten years. The next three articles discuss the ways that employers and governments both here and abroad help parents manage the demands of work and the care of their babies. The last six articles in the issue, called "Reports from the Field," recount the stories behind new efforts to strengthen the care given to the nation's youngest children. Taken together, the articles point to the need to improve the entire array of caregiving options—from care by parents themselves, to care by relatives, and care provided in licensed homes or centers.

This overview article opens with a brief look at the dramatic, multifaceted development that takes place during infancy, and highlights the influence that caregiving has on development. It discusses how caregiving has changed in the last half-century, with increasing maternal employment and use of nonfamilial child care, and it reviews the ambivalence of public reactions to these shifts. Finally, the article looks closely at the adequacy of family leave and child care subsidy policies designed to help American families manage the demands of work and caregiving. It argues that further action by government, employers, and community institutions is needed to strengthen all the caregiving options families use, to ensure that a nurturing environment surrounds every young child's development.