Two recently released studies which crossed my desk this month make a telling statement about the way that the West has chosen to care for small children in the late Twentieth century.
In only the latest indictment of day care facilities (nurseries in the UK) an American study of nearly 6000 children under six found that 17 per cent had repeated ear infections. Although certain factors seems to predispose children to ear aches (enlarged adenoids, asthma and repeated tonsillitis), the greatest risk factor was placement outside the home. Children placed in child care had a 50 per cent greater chance of repeated ear infections than did children cared for at home. But the greatest risk of all was placement in day care centres whether for four or forty hours a week.
The other revealing study (Obstetrical and Gynaecology Survey, November 1993) shows that breast feeding protects babies against ear infections. In a study of 1300 babies under a year, researchers found that babies who had been breast fed for the first four months had half the number of infections of the middle ear during their first six months as other babies protection that carries on for at least a year.
Ear aches have become a virtual epidemic in the UK and the US affecting up to half of all children under five and boosting the business in grommets (tympanostomy in the States). The new link with day care centres means that ear aches can now join haemophilis influenzae meningitis, hepatitis A, giardia lamblia, salmonella and E coli as diseases caused by institutionalizing children too early.
Neither study pinpointed the factor in day care centres that caused ear infections, or the factor in breast feeding which prevented them. Other studies have demonstrated that bottlefed babies have a higher incidence of middle ear infections than breastfed babies do, but we don't know whether the particular ingredients in the milk or the baby's sucking action more aggressive in breast feeding than in bottle feeding is behind it. Or maybe it has something to do with of being within close proximity to mum.
If you put these two isolated studies together, what you cannot avoid bumping into are the implications, upon the health of the next generation, of women rushing back to full time work immediately after the birth of their children.
Yet a third study offers the kind of modern solution to problems created by separating mother and infant. A set of Canadian researchers tested whether a drug, Imocur, composed of extracts of eight species of bacteria, could, in effect, prevent recurrent respiratory infections among day care children. Not surprisingly, vaccinating children against institutionalization doesn't really work.
This isn't a call for a turning back of the clock. Most families need two incomes, many women are heads of household, and probably a majority of women would like some interest outside the home. But the most important feminist issue may be for greater flexibility in the workplace, for the right for women to be both mothers and employees. Otherwise, the price of equality may prove too high.