Time to pool the early years sector's expertise on working with babies

Drs Peter Elfer and Jools Page
Friday, February 3, 2012

By pooling experience and expertise, early years practitioners could bring about real advances in under-threes provision, say Drs Peter Elfer and Jools Page

Professional work with babies is one of the most intense, intellectually and emotionally demanding roles an adult could have. But could 2012 become a year hallmarked by real step-changes in how this work is recognised and implemented?

Research, textbooks and child development experts regularly remind us of the importance of the early years, and the first 12 months in particular. So too, more recently, offical reports. Just look at the four reviews commissioned by the Coalition Government last year, Frank Field’s on child poverty, Graham Allen’s on family support, the Tickell review of the EYFS and Eileen Munroe’s on safeguarding (see References). Yet the status, training, support and pay of practitioners helping babies start their life journeys remains poor. Babyroom staff regularly feel undervalued and ‘bottom of the pile’ and too often, ‘promotion’ for them means a move to working with an older age group. But what progress has been made and what opportunties will present themselves in 2012 to advance babyroom practice?


In the UK, the coalition has set out the centre piece of its new strategy of family support Families in the Foundation Years, from pregnancy to five. The focus of this is on the most disadvantaged. For those families using nursery, the contribution that practitioners working with babies can make is obvious: working in partnership with families, offering support and solidarity are priceless in value. Yet this will only work well if these practitioners feel recognised and valued too.

Workforce development is the key here. What an opportunity to look at the needs of those working with babies as the Children’s Workforce Development Council moves into the Department of Education. Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s review of qualifications in the foundation years’ workforce is another huge opportunity to take a serious look at training and support for work with babies.

The Department of Education, in reviewing the EYFS, has restated the central importance of interactions with children. Here the key person approach is the means of ensuring consistent and responsive interactions between babies and practitioners. Thanks to the work of Elinor Goldschmied, the key person principle has been with us for over 20 years. Yet making it work in practice is complex, organisationally as well as emotionally. Here too is a golden opportunity to improve practice. Might 2012 be the year when Ofsted will give serious attention to this fundamental part of nursery practice documenting good practice as well as problems?

Research and practice

There is exciting research and practice development going on too. The innovative Baby Room Project, led by Dr Sacha Powell and Dr Kathy Goouch at Canterbury Christ Church University, has been exploring how babies are cared for in nurseries and how their development is supported and nourished.

We know too that individual local authorities have been active to develop practice with babies and we have had conversations about new professional development initiatives in baby rooms.

Much is happening internationally. The Pacific Early Childhood Education Conference in Kobe, Japan last year highlighted work on babies and under-threes. Keynotes stressed the importance of giving more research attention to emotional experience in nurseries, for babies and practitioners, and for research to be undertaken with nursery staff rather than on them.

In November, we participated in an International symposium on babies and toddlers, held at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Over a packed week, work being undertaken in Australia, the US, New Zealand, Finland, Norway and Sweden as well as the UK was scrutinised and compared.

Cross-national comparisons offer renewed impetus and energy. For example, much work is being developed on babies’ interactions with other babies in pairs and groups. Without underplaying the importance of interactions with adults, this work on babies’ interactions together in small groups is an important reminder of babies’ vibrant capacities as well as vulnerabilities.


Individual practitioners can play an important part in developing practice in baby rooms by becoming involved in collaborations and partnerships under the umbrella of developing research and practice on work with babies in nursery. Working together matters; it matters even more now that resources are so tight. We cannot afford to reinvent wheels and we need to share expertise.

Below are some strands of our work that we will be continuing to develop in 2012. If reading about these, you have experience and expertise to share, we would be delighted to hear from you.

The key person approach

Elinor Goldschmied would have been heartened by the central position of the key person within the EYFS framework. We know what while many nurseries strive to implement an effective system, for others the approach is tokenistic. The logistics of key person practice, never mind its emotional complexities, are difficult. We have, therefore, been working with local authority and individual nurseries as ‘critical friends’, talking through issues and obstacles. There is much good practice to share and build on.

Professional love

One common anxiety about implementing the key person approach is parents’ reaction to their child becoming attached to a practitioner. But can practitioners have such a close relationship with the babies in their key groups and remain professional? It is exactly this question, the idea of ‘professional love’, that is a second strand of work.

We have been talking with practitioners, parents (especially mothers returning to work after the birth of their baby) and even children about the notion of ‘professional love’. Some mothers have expressed a strong preference for their babies to be loved by their key person, while some practitioners have told us they love the babies and toddlers in their care. However, this presents more questions: What does this love look like? How can it be defined? How is it different/complementary to the love between the parent and child?

We think love can and should be discussed through gentle and sensitive dialogue among practitioners and with parents. But it is a discussion that does not always come naturally to either party. That is why opportunities for professional reflection – on the minutiae of what happens day to day and the language we use, such as ‘professional love’   is so important.

Supervision and professional reflection

Being professional is about uncertainty and openness as well as confidence and authority, about reflecting on feelings as well as on facts. Working with babies inevitably stirs up emotions, both positive and negative, and such feelings can be overwhelming for professionals, as well as parents.

Talking through such feelings can help practitioners manage their emotions better, and the draft for the revised EYFS emphasises the importance of providing staff with opportunities to discuss such feelings in a culture of mutual support and continuous review. This will prove a challenge to settings in terms of time and in creating the right spirit of shared thinking.

With a group of early years professionals and child psychotherapists, we have been developing a new model of professional reflection for nursery practitioners and this has now been used in over 20 LEAs. We know many nurseries have developed their own models of professional reflection and feel we could learn much from sharing this experience and expertise?

Observation techniques with under-threes

We will also be turning our attention to observation techniques with babies and very young children.

Babies tell us a lot about their experience through their body language and emotional communications. Observation methods often try to exclude emotion because of the dangers of subjectivity, but an observation method, developed at the Tavistock NHS Mental Health Trust and highly sensitive to emotion, has been adapted for use in nurseries with great success. This too is a big opportunity for development.

Working in partnership with parents

Lastly, we’ll be investigating partnerships with parents. Weak relationships can lead parents to feel they have to choose between staying at home with their baby or sending them to nursery and missing out on so much of their child’s development. Conversely, strong partnerships enable parents to both influence the care of their baby at nursery and feel part of what happens there.

Why does partnership, joining up the worlds of home and nursery for the baby, work so well in some settings and yet seem so absent in others? Could 2012 see a big shift here too in the way a child’s family feels part of nursery and part of their baby’s life there?

The climate within the early years sector is without doubt a difficult one, yet there is much to build on if we can find ways to collaborate better. What a year it would be if in 2012 babies, and practitioners working with them, really shifted centre stage.


If you would like to feed in to any strand of our research, then contact us at:

Dr Peter Elfer, Programme Convenor, MA Early Childhood Studies, University of Roehampton; p.elfer@roehampton.ac.uk Dr Jools Page, Programme Director, MA Early Childhood Education (UK and Malta), University of Sheffield; j.m.page@sheffield.ac.uk


  • Peter Elfer, Elinor Goldschmidt and Dorothy Selleck (2011) Key Persons in the Early Years: Building Relationships for Quality Provision in Early Years Settings and Primary Schools. London: David Fulton.
  • See Jools Page’s discussion of ‘Professional Love’ in her book with Cathy Nutbrown: Cathy Nutbrown and Jools Page (2008) Working with Babies and Children from Birth to Three. London: Sage.
  • Frank Field ‘The Foundation Years: Preventing poor children becoming poor adults’ (2010)
  • Graham Allen’s Independent Report: Early Intervention: Next steps (2011).
  • Professor Eileen Munro (2010) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report – A child-centred system, DfE
  • Frank Field, MP(2010) The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults: The report of the independent review on Poverty and Life Chances, Cabinet Office, Whitehall, London.
  • Graham Allen, MP (2010) Early Intervention: the next steps and (2011) Early Intervention: The Next Steps, Cabinet Office, London.
  • Tickell, Dame Clare (2010) The Early Years: Foundations for life, health and learning

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