Home childcare trend fuels segregation fears

Sweden’s childcare allowance is proving ever-more popular in heavily immigrant neighbourhoods, resulting in the closure of some preschools and prompting fears about the measure’s unintended consequences.

Home childcare trend fuels segregation fears

Overall, the programme, launched in July 2008 by the centre-right Alliance government, has not proven overly popular with Swedish parents.

But a study carried out by the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper reveals that increasing numbers of parents in neighbourhoods dominated by residents with immigrant backgrounds are choosing to use the benefit and keep their children at home rather than send them to publicly funded preschools.

In the Spånga-Tensta neighbourhood north of central Stockholm, for example, the number of families requesting the childcare allowance has more than doubled, from 61 in 2008 to 135 in 2009.

In addition, two preschools in the area have closed down due to a lack of children, prompting concerns that immigrant children who remain at home risk falling behind in their acquisition of the Swedish language.

“Many say ‘it doesn’t matter, they’re so small’. But even an 18-month-old enjoys and benefits from preschool, as it helps develop both social skills and language abilities,” Karin Danielsson, head of the Stormhatten preschool in Tensta, told the newspaper.

In effect since July 1st, 2008, the childcare allowance (vårdnadsbidraget) is available to parents who forego the option of sending their children to a publicly financed preschool. Parents are allowed to continue working, but the benefit can’t be combined with traditional parental leave payments, unemployment insurance benefits, or other forms of economic support.

The idea behind the childcare allowance is to give families the ability to stay at home a little longer with their young children once their parental leave benefits have been used up.

According to DN, around 100 of Sweden’s 290 municipalities have implemented the measure, but as of yet there are no nationwide statistics on the number of parents participating in the programme.

Sweden’s main teachers union, Lärarförbundet, has long been critical of the allowance, issuing early warnings that the programme would likely lead to increased segregation by allowing unemployed immigrant parents and their children to isolate themselves at home, rather than engage with different aspects of Swedish society.

“Here we see how the childcare allowance is counterproductive when it comes to efforts to reduce segregation and give children the language training they need,” Lärarförbundet head Eva-Lis Preisz told DN.

“The children are the losers.”

Educators’ concerns are shared by the Social Democrats, who also fear the childcare allowance will hamper children’s language development.

But the Christian Democrats, who championed the measure and are hoping to increase the benefit ceiling from 3,000 kronor ($422) per month to 6,000 kronor, don’t view the developments in the predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods north of Stockholm as problematic.

“Having a family’s economic situation improved a little bit during such an important time in the child’s life can only be positive. What children lose in language development they make up for with a feeling of security,” the Christian Democrats’ spokesperson on family policy, Emma Henriksson, told DN.

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Acupuncture could help your baby stop crying: study

Swedish researchers say acupuncture "appears to reduce crying" in babies suffering from colic.

Acupuncture could help your baby stop crying: study
File photo of a five-week old baby. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

But their work was criticized by colleagues in the medical field, with one calling the study methodology “appalling”.

A duo from Lund University's medicine faculty tested the traditional Chinese needle-piercing remedy in a trial involving nearly 150 babies between two and eight weeks old.

They reported their results in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine, published by the BMJ – formerly known as the British Medical Journal.

Compared to babies who did not undergo the needle treatment, infants who received acupuncture over two weeks exhibited “a significant relative reduction” in crying, the team found.

Such research can be controversial. Acupuncture is invasive, potentially painful, and its benefits are not universally accepted.

Organizations such as the British Medical Acupuncture Society says it is used to treat muscle and postoperative pain, as well as nausea.

But some think acupuncture's effects are that of a placebo, meaning people feel better because they believe it works. The National Institutes of Health, the main UN research agency, says there is “considerable controversy” around its value.

Colic affects as many as one in five families, and is diagnosed when a baby cries for more than three hours per day on more than three days per week.

Why it occurs is not well understood. Indigestion, trapped wind and intolerance to cows' milk have been identified as possible causes.

For the study, colicky babies were divided into three groups of 49. One received “minimal” acupuncture treatment, while another was given up to five 30-second needlings per session. The third group was not given any needle treatment.

“Significantly fewer infants who received acupuncture continued to cry/fuss excessively,” the researchers concluded.

This suggested “acupuncture may be an effective treatment option” for babies crying more than three hours a day.

File photo of an adult person receiving acupuncture. Photo: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Criticism of the study was harsh. David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London, described the researchers' analysis of data as “incompetent” and “appalling”.

The study “certainly doesn't show that it [acupuncture] works”, he told the Science Media Centre.

“What parent would think that sticking needles into their baby would stop it crying? The idea sounds bizarre. It is.”

Edzard Ernst from the University of Exeter said the study showed “almost the opposite of what the authors conclude”.

“We know that colicky babies respond even to minimal attention, and this trial confirms that a little additional TLC” – Tender Loving Care – “will generate an effect”.

A total of 388 acupuncture treatments were performed on the babies, the authors reported. On 200 occasions the infant did not cry at all after being pierced, 157 times they cried for up to a minute, and 31 times for more than that.

“The acupuncturists reported bleeding (a single drop of blood) on 15 occasions,” the authors said.

The treatment “may be considered ethically acceptable” if it managed to reduce excessive crying in the longer term, they added.

The report did not indicate what acupuncture points were used.

Article written by AFP's Mariètte Le Roux.