Baby rooms: it's people, not structures, that matter most

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Staff in baby rooms deserve our support to provide the best for young children, say Dr Kathy Goouch and Dr Sacha Powell

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Dr Kathy Goouch and Dr Sacha Powell

On 2 September Canterbury Christ Church University held its 5th Annual Baby Room Conference in London. 

Since 2008 we have been supporting groups of practitioners who work in baby rooms in the South East, providing opportunities for them to join networks of practice, to gain access to research, to policy documents and to renowned national and international academic colleagues during the project and at research conferences.

During our baby room projects we have learned that people who work in baby rooms frequently endure challenging work conditions and low pay. They feel strongly that they have low status and report few opportunities for professional development.

The participants in our projects have been hungry to learn and to know more about how to support babies and their families. We trust that the opportunity the project provided to engage in research and development helped to persuade our participants of the importance of their deep level engagement with babies and very young children and the high levels of responsibility involved in this work.

At the first four conferences, our brilliant keynote speakers have been Dr Jools Page, Dr Peter Elfer, Professor Tricia David, Liz Attenborough, Dr Elly Singer, Dr Anne Meade, Professor Mary McMullen, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Helen Moylett,, Alice Sharp, Liz Roberts, Dr Travis Wright, Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith – all of whom have spoken from their own corner of the field, and with deep levels of expertise and experience, in support of close interactions, close companionship and the relationship between the understanding, confidence and well-being of parents, caregivers/ practitioners and the quality of support and education of babies in their care.

The strong theme which emerged from the three keynote speakers at the 5th conference was that 'people matter 'most in the quality of the daycare lives of babies and young children.

We learned from Professor Karmiloff-Smith of the importance of conversation, of communication and of the brilliance of babies as they become attuned to the sounds and patterns of their mothers' language through closeness and dyadic eye contact developing to triadic eye gaze as they learn about their worlds into which they have emerged. 

Dr Wright transfixed his audience with respectful stories told about children who have suffered traumatic lives and have been enabled by emotionally responsive adults to take control and develop safe relationships. Dr Wright reminded us of the importance of teaching from hope – a powerful reminder of the dangers of focusing on deficit models with children, parents and families. 

Professor McMullen gathered the conference together with a passionate presentation which defined care in moral, ethical and responsive terms. Her extensive research work with ‘caregivers’ in the US also supports ways of understanding ‘continuity of care’ – with its central theme of responsive caregiving – to babies and their families.

These three international experts were less concerned with the systems and structures in care and education and focused their attention instead on the deep significance of people in the lives of babies and young children. Professor Karmiloff-Smith spoke passionately about the fact that words matter less in language development than the significant conversations, perhaps wordless, that happen most often between mother and child at the beginning of babies’ lives. And both Dr Wright and Professor McMullen continuously emphasised that people matter in babies’ lives, parents, caregivers and teachers – all of those adults with whom babies and children spend most of their waking weeks.

During the last six years in our Baby Room Project, we have also focused attention on the fact that parents and families are handing over ‘their most precious thing’ (as one practitioner said to us) and the huge responsibility that entails. We have reminded all of the participants who worked with us how much they matter in the lives of babies’ in their care. 

However, in spite of our project work to raise the status, well-being, confidence, knowledge and understanding of people who work with babies, in spite of the powerful messages from renowned academics in the field, we are still faced with negative messages in the media which seek to denigrate this important work and the people employed to care.

Baby room staff do not insist that babies are left in their care; they have not created social and economic policies that dictate the choices that mothers and families make; nor are they often in a position to create the environments, structures or systems within which they work.  They are most often in the unenviable position of being surrounded by ‘stakeholders’, who frequently have competing agendas, and who try to dictate their practice.

We believe that people employed to care for babies, who are paid little and whose own well-being is seldom supported, should be nurtured and helped to do this important job as well as is possible in the often challenging circumstances and environments in which we have witnessed that they work.

Our challenge is to find ways to support the care and education of babies; to think hard about what ‘care’ and ‘education’ means in relation to babies; to find ways to allow networks of baby room practitioners to grow so that practice can be challenged and debated by practitioners; and to keep babies, baby rooms and baby room practitioners at the forefront of our minds when we consider what matters most in the everyday lives of babies in daycare, and their families. 

Dr Kathy Goouch and Dr Sacha Powell, the Centre for Children, Families and Communities Research, Canterbury Christ Church University

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