A web of relationships: caregivers' perspectives on the complexity of working with infants and toddlers




Elliot, Enid Frances

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Previous research has investigated the effects of daycare on infants, though little attention has been given to the emotional impact of this work on their caregivers. Attachment theory has influenced the approach to infant daycare, leading many programs to adopt a primary caregiving system in order to respond effectively to the needs of the infant. Babies become attached to caregivers and in turn caregivers become attached to the babies. This study explored the implications of such attachments. Naturalistic inquiry made the web of relationships surrounding infant/toddler caregivers apparent. In conversational interviews, caregivers spoke deeply of the complexities and demands of their work with babies and their families. Their voices were eloquent, thoughtful and reflective. The data consist of lengthy initial interviews, follow-up conversations, and observations. The researcher's own education and experience informed the data gathering and interpretation. Seven caregivers in four different centres were interviewed. Each had her Under Age Three Certificate and worked in a licensed centre. Each of these centres used some degree of primary caregiving. The interviews were informal, based on a list of questions used to encourage conversation and narrative. Observations offered an opportunity to understand the context of each caregiver and prompt further conversation. Analysis was a process of analyzing the interviews for themes and ideas in light of the observations. The picture that emerged illustrates the complexity inherent in the work of caring for babies. Caregivers spoke of their relationships as sources of satisfaction and frustration. In a dynamic, ongoing process of engaging with babies, families, co-workers, and selves, caregivers must negotiate these multiple relationships using skills of empathy and thoughtfulness. The Early Childhood Education and Care literature discusses toddlers' struggle with separation anxieties. Not well articulated in the literature, but evident in the data, is the grief of the caregivers. Each woman spoke of her own sadness at the loss of her relationship with a baby or toddler when that child left the centre. Relationship with all its intensity and tensions was central to the professional experience of these women. Each of the four most experienced caregivers accented a different aspect of caregiving: a) the sensual aspects of caring for babies, b) the intellectual possibilities of caregiving, c) caring as a spiritual practice, and d) the need for attentive care for one's self. The particular centre and context of each caregiver influenced the care she provided; without a supportive environment it is difficult to provide respectful and responsive care. The participants discussed the need for adequate time to establish and maintain relationships; time was also necessary to meet and discuss concerns. Caregivers needed time for reflection to keep multiple perspectives in mind. Time is an important and often scarce resource for caregivers. Caregiving is a web of relationships. This research was reflective of and ethically responsive to the caregiving relationship. Paying attention to the multiple pulls experienced as an insider, I used trust, respect, responsiveness, and responsibility to guide the research process. Two women, whom I called peer reviewers and who had both worked in the field, but were now a step removed, discussed with me general topics raised by the interviews and listened for the "ring of truth". Listening to the seldom heard voices of the caregivers and their emphasis on the process of building and maintaining relationships suggests possible directions for supervision of centres, guidelines for Early Childhood Education and Care education, and development of licensing policies. The caregivers' focus on relationship challenges the centrality of child development in the organization of practice. Supporting, honouring, and building on caregivers' connections with the babies in their care, the families, the staff, and with themselves will enhance the practice of infant and toddler care.



Attachment behavior in children, Infants, Care, Toddlers, Child care workers