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Making childcare child-centred

The needs of children should be a central tenet of childcare provision. However, too often the voice of the child can get lost in wider policy discussion.


As members of the Childcare for All campaign, Barnardo’s NI is working with our coalition partners to call for child-centred universal childcare provision.


We believe that getting childcare right is critical to supporting good infant mental health, addressing child poverty, and ultimately achieving better outcomes for every child.

There are many different aspects that need to be considered in developing childcare provision that meets the varied needs of children, parents, providers and wider society – and a real strength of the Childcare for All coalition is that the member organisations reflect these different concerns. We all agree that childcare in Northern Ireland must be affordable, accessible, flexible, high quality and support child development.


For us, it’s critical that children are at the very heart of childcare. The social, emotional and developmental needs of children must be central to the wider policy discussion.

Children of all ages deserve access to childcare that is responsive to their educational and developmental needs. In the particular context of early years, good quality child-centred childcare can play a key role in a child’s development.


The ages of 0-3 are a crucial time for cognitive, emotional and social development in children, and warm, responsive caregivers are central to an infant’s sense of safety. This relationship with the caregiver helps the child to develop strong attachment and supports good infant mental health – which, simply put, is the ability to grow, learn and love.

Infancy represents the period of fastest growth in brain development: by the time a child is three years old, their brains have formed 1,000 trillion neural connections; and one million brain connections are formed every second in the first year alone. These connections are developed and strengthened through repetition, and form the building blocks for development upon which all social, emotional and cognitive development is based in both the short and long term.


In terms of emotional development, quality interactions between caregivers and infants help to promote secure attachment, which helps to develop resilience and in turn acts as a ‘buffer’ when a child experiences a stressful situation.


The early learning environment also has a significant influence on a child’s social development: children are born ready to socialise and thrive on quality interactions with caregivers.


Childcare providers therefore have an important role to play in supporting healthy child development through high-quality, child-centred provision. In addition, childcare professionals also play a role as part of the family’s wider support network, and can be a source of support and guidance for parents, providing consistent messaging and supporting public health initiatives. It’s critical that childcare policy recognises the important role of childcare in child development, and reflects that childcare provision presents an opportunity to support the commitment to giving children the best start in life.


Further, a lack of affordable childcare has repeatedly been identified as a key factor in child poverty.


We believe that no child should be living in poverty as a result of a parent’s inability to access or stay in paid work, or due to the high cost of childcare. Childcare needs to be accessible and responsive to the needs of parents – both in terms of location and hours of provision, as well as physical and sensory accessibility. Another important and yet often overlooked aspect is the particular challenges and barriers to accessing childcare experienced by ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland.


The availability, accessibility and flexibility of childcare is closely linked to preventing and mitigating the impacts of poverty and should be viewed as a key element in eradicating child poverty.


Barnardo’s NI is proud to be a member of the Childcare for All coalition highlighting the needs of children alongside parents, providers and society: it’s important that we work together to deliver a sustainable solution that improves outcomes for every child.



· Julia Buchanan is Assistant Director, Policy at Barnardo’s Northern Ireland.

· Barnardo’s NI is the largest children’s charity in Northern Ireland. We have been working for more than 150 years to support children, young people and families achieve better outcomes. These days, we deliver a wide range of services across Northern Ireland, from providing family support and early intervention, to working directly with children and families who have experienced adversity and need our support. We believe that every child deserves the best possible start in life, and our service provision reflects that philosophy.