Child Care Ratio questioned

Ask most mothers of babies under two-years-old if they would be able to care for five babies at the one time and the answer would almost certainly be a resounding 'no!' A NSW campaign is calling for a revised ratio of one worker to every four babies.

This is the reason why the NSW Children's Services Regulation - which governs what happens in NSW's child care centres - has come under criticism. The organisation sets a required ratio of 1 child care worker to every 5 babies in all child care centres in NSW.

Child care workers themselves, along with many child care providers, have joined together to try and convince the NSW State Government that the ratio of carers to babies in child care centres in NSW should be changed to 1:4 as soon as possible. They have called their campaign 1:4 - Make it Law.

Over the last few years the new research into brain development has shown us that how a baby's brain is wired in their first three years is crucial for later development: it cannot be rewired later in life. Essentially scientists now know that when a baby is born many regions of the brain have a large number of unconnected synapses (these are the connections that link cells in the brain) that need to be connected and given their roles or "job descriptions" within the brain. 

We now know that more of these synaptic connections occur when a baby has experiences of interaction with a responsive and nurturing adult. Some people call this the "serve and return" concept. A volley of expressions and reactions between a carer and a baby is what creates healthy brain growth. When a parent or carer smiles at a baby and the baby smiles back and the carer responds in turn, more brain cell connections are made.  

Although this sounds very simplistic, it is these simple interactions that create the synaptic connections that a developing baby needs. As a baby grows he/she needs to be able to check out each action or interaction that occurs with a responsive caregiver. She/he needs to be able to mirror care giver's responses. 

So what we now know is that babies need secure and nurturing relationships to optimise their neural growth. They need relationships where they can practice 'serve and return' interactions in order for their brains to grow. 

Is it possible to offer babies in child care the strong, secure and nurturing relationships they need when a carer needs to look after five babies at a time? 

Research into child care shows us that what matters most in determining the quality of childcare is:
- Staff child ratios and group sizes
- Staff qualifications
- Child/carer relationships
- Continuity of care

Of these elements, child care experts believe that if ratios are good and if the centre is staffed by highly qualified staff, the other elements of quality care fall into place. Most research both in Australia and internationally has shown that no more than three babies should be cared for by one caregiver.
In NSW, the ratios set by the State Government do not reflect what this research tells us is optimal care. 

The current ratio required by the Regulation that governs child care in NSW is 1:5 for babies. The requirements of the Regulation are the required minimum standards. Children's services can chose to staff at higher levels.

A range of child care service providers and peak organisations in the child care sector are currently campaigning to get the NSW State Government to change the ratios for babies in child care centres from 1:5 to 1:4 as a first step. 

Bernadette Dunn, from Community Child Care Co-operative, one of the organisations involved in the campaign, says that although one staff member to 4 babies is still more babies than ideal it is a massive improvement on a 1:5 ratio. "International child care experts have called a 1:5 ratio a "ratio for neglect". 

Despite the best efforts of child care workers it just isn't possible for staff to provide the quality interactions babies need when so many babies are being cared for by so few staff."

Ms Dunn also points out that "The ratios impact on the health and well-being of staff - a 1:5 ratio - one staff member to five babies also contributes to higher burn out rates for child care staff.  This then makes it impossible for babies to have the continuity of care they need."

The benefits of having even a 1:4 ratio in child care centres are immense. The research tells us that a 1:4 ratio would:
• mean that babies would be more likely to have positive interactions with caregivers and be properly supervised;
• enable caregivers to have more positive, nurturing interactions with babies in their care and provide them with more individualised attention;
• mean that babies in child care would display less apathy and distress and greater social competence;
• mean that babies in child care would engage in more talk and play and display more gestural and vocal imitation;
• mean babies would receive more developmentally appropriate care giving and sensitivity, more contact (e.g. talking, playing, touching, and laughing)
• mean higher rates of secure attachments between babies and their caregivers;
• mean more verbal communication between caregivers and babies, (this appears to foster language development in children).
• reduce the transmission of disease in child care centres;
• reduce the number of situations involving potential danger and child abuse in child care centres;
Many child care centres know that a 1:5 ratio does not work for babies or for child care staff and offer a 1:4 ratio or better.

Parents that are interested in helping push the NSW State Government to require better ratios should:
- Find out the ratios in the centre your baby attends. Find out if they already offer a 1:4 or better ratio or are committed to moving towards this.
- Speak up about wanting good quality care for your child and for all children at NSW Child Care Centres. 
- Write to your local state member asking that they approach the State Minister for Community Services, Kevin Greene to ask for the implementation of a 1:4 ratio for under 2 year olds in child care centres. 
- Email Kevin Greene now demanding that the Children's Services Regulation be changed to reflect best practice for babies.

So should child care be avoided if a parent wishes their baby to have optimal brain growth? No. Research also tells us that quality child care, with evidence based ratios, is not detrimental to children and in fact can have enormous benefits for children especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We just need to ensure that there all centres have good ratios!

This article has been provided by the Community Child Care Co-operative. For more information see

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