Supports children receive in infancy have a profound influence on their intellectual and social development
A version of this commentary appeared in the Huffington Post.
UNICEF recently released a report card ranking child well-being in the 29 richest countries on earth. Canada came 17th, placing us in the bottom half of the pack on factors such as child poverty, emotional well-being and life satisfaction.
Clearly, we can do better. It’s time to have a frank conversation about how our country approaches early childhood: what we get right and what we need to change.
For example, our education system does a good job of promoting cognitive development and helping children develop the skills they need to excel academically. International rankings have placed Canada near the top of the heap when it comes to educational achievement, and even the very same UNICEF report card mentioned earlier, cites us as above average in this category.
But school is only part of the picture. Learning starts far before children enter a classroom, and the foundational brain architecture laid down during those crucial first few years determines the stability of an entire lifetime. Studies show that the support and stimulation children receive in infancy has a profound effect on their intellectual and social development, influencing everything from educational achievement, to mental health, to risk of heart disease.
It is here, in this critical juncture, that we most need to improve. And the best way to do that is to borrow from those who seem to be succeeding. For instance, Norway, Sweden, and Germany — countries which ranked far higher than Canada on UNICEF’s report card — have significantly more generous parental leave policies than Canada.
In these countries, parents on leave receive between 85 percent and 90 percent of their annual salaries, compared to Canada’s 50 percent. And parents with the means to do so can take between 150 and 170 weeks — upwards of three years and three months — off to raise a young child, with the guarantee that their job will be there for them when they return.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands, which ranked first place in UNICEF’s report card, provides a host of benefits to new parents, including subsidized childcare, special outreach programs for at-risk families, and comprehensive postnatal support from maternity nurses specially trained to assist new mothers in the transition to parenthood. These individuals, called kraamverzorgster, often put in as much as six to eight hours a day for a single family, doing everything from offering breastfeeding instruction to diagnosing and dealing with tongue ties. They’ll even do light housework.
These policies seem luxurious to us, maybe even decadent, but they are actually a well-researched and pragmatic response to the costliness of poor early childhood experience, which takes a heavy toll, not just on the affected individual or family, but on society as a whole.
While often beneficial, adopting individual programs and policies to support early childhood development can only make so big an impact. Where countries like Sweden and the Netherlands really get it right — and where we really need to focus our attention — is in reframing early childhood development as an issue worthy of our attention.
When it comes to early childhood in Canada, a national vision is sadly lacking. In 2004, the federal government proposed a comprehensive action plan for a Canada-wide early childhood system called A Canada Fit for Children, which focused on supporting families, building communities, and promoting education. However, this plan was scrapped in 2006 in favor of a taxable universal payment of $100 per child under six years old.
This policy has a certain innate appeal — who doesn’t love getting a cheque in the mail? But while a little extra money can make a difference for a lot of families, such payments are at best a Band-Aid strategy, quick fixes that do nothing to address the deeper limitations of our early childhood strategy and ignore the systemic inequalities between wealthy and poor families.
This is not to say that Canada hasn’t made significant strides. Our parental leave policy, though less generous than some countries, still provides new families with financial support during that vital first year, when a parent’s presence matters most. And more recent initiatives, like the new parental tax benefits, can make a big difference when budgets are tight.
But cutting cheques has its limitations. The money allocated from ‘baby bonuses’ can be used on unregulated childcare services, some of which provide dubious supports for families. If pooled into a common resource, the same amount of money can go much farther, providing effective and evidence-based postnatal support.
Nicole Letourneau is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine. She also holds the Norlien/Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary.
Justin Joschko is a freelance writer currently residing in Ottawa. Their co-authored book, Scientific Parenting, has been released with Dundurn Press.