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Too Young for Childcare?

Infants' Special Needs

Whether babies are at home or in childcare, their requirements are simple in the first year of life. "They need to be safe and well fed and kept comfortable, and they need to feel valued," says Nancy Balaban, director of the Infant and Parent Development Program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York City. "They need certainty, and to know that the person who is there for them today will be there tomorrow, too."

During the first months, an infant slowly develops an awareness of the world around her through sensory exploration and interactions with people. "A very young baby is just beginning to understand where she ends and someone else begins," says Penelope Leach, author of Children First. "She develops her essence from the way someone reacts to her, so that person must be familiar with the baby’s habits. If a 3- or 4-month-old puts her finger in my mouth, for instance, I need to know: Is she thumb sucking? Is she teething? A quality caregiver wants to find out."

Lisa Sachs of Oak Park, IL, knew she had found excellent care for her son, Noah, when the prospective caregiver whom she was interviewing noticed something Noah was doing and immediately reacted. "She responded even before I did," Sachs says.

A sensitive caregiver will also feel comfortable expressing affection. Infants in childcare for eight to ten hours a day need to form secure relationships&nbsp— if they click with their caregiver, they’re more likely to form friendships with other children as well. "There are myriad ways of expressing affection," says Sandra Twardosz, a professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee. "Smiling, touching, using endearments, physical contact&nbsp— all are important."

Gauging just how a caretaker relates to a child isn’t always easy. Sheila Mackie of Meriden, CT, thought she’d found the ideal provider for her daughter, Kara, who entered family childcare at 4 months. "The woman had an early childhood degree, good references, and lots of educational toys in her home."

But Kara didn’t fare well. "She cried the whole time she was there," says Mackie, "and not for lack of affection. They just didn’t click. Kara wasn’t being stimulated the way she needed to be." Once Mackie switched her daughter to a childcare center, Kara thrived. "She seemed to be in the lap of her provider constantly, and the other kids were always cuddling and tickling her," Mackie says.

Along with expressing affection, it’s important for a caregiver to be playful. After all, she is a baby’s guide to the world of social interaction. By the middle of the first year, babies take great pleasure in games such as peekaboo and finger rhymes. "A child is learning to look for cues, to take turns, to pay very close attention to her partner," says Fergus Hughes, a professor of human development and psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and the author of Children, Play, and Development. "Adults who are playful will smile more and make a lot of eye contact."