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Proposed Day-Care Rules in Maryland Require Holding and Talking to Infants

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Recognizing the link between early nurturing and a child's healthy development, proposed new regulations for Maryland day-care centers would require that infants be "held, played with, and talked to."

While many states are beginning to detail the types of care appropriate for young children, the Maryland proposal's level of specificity regarding infant nurturing may be unique, child-care experts say.

The rule, part of a package of regulations that could take effect this fall, is "really a reflection of the current state of psychological knowledge about the needs of infants and infant development," said Roberta M. Ward, assistant director for compliance for the Maryland office of child-care licensing and regulation.

Ms. Ward said the rule heeds a wide body of research showing that if infants are deprived of "loving, close physical interactions with an adult" for prolonged periods, their emotional development may be impeded.

"While we think providers generally do understand that, if [observers] go into a center and someone is obviously not doing that, unless it is in the regulations, they can't do anything," said Ann Feldman, public-policy director for the Maryland Committee for Children, a group that lobbied for several years for the new regulations.

The provision is part of the state's first standards for infants and toddlers in child-care centers.

In addition to requiring that ins be held and played with, the new rules would:

Set a child-staff ratio of no more than three infants per caretaker, and limit the number of children allowed in a group, and the mix of infants and children;

Set detailed standards on feeding, diapering, and center equipment;

Require that infants or toddlers be held for each bottle feeding, except when they are "developmentally able and insistent" on feeding themselves;

Give them opportunities to sit, crawl, toddle, walk outside the crib or playpen, and be taken outdoors;

Require that directors or senior staff members of centers with infants and toddlers have extra training or experience in infant development.

Under state law, family-day-care homes--those in which providers care for up to six children in private homes--can legally care for no more than two children under age 2.

While most Maryland infants cared for outside the home are now in family-day-care homes or with relatives, the demand for infant care is growing, officials say.

Until now, however, people wanting to open child-care centers designed to accommodate larger numbers of infants had to submit plans to county licensing officials, who rated them on a case-by-case basis.

Such a procedure "really slows down the process of increasing the supply of infant child care in centers," said Peggy Daly Pizzo, an N.C.C.I.P. program associate.

State officials hope to raise the supply of providers by setting clear rules for what is acceptable. The goal is to ensure that "everyone knows what the standard is," Ms. Ward said.

The proposed rules, which also include upgraded regulations for family-day-care homes, are being revised to address issues raised during a public-comment period and must then clear a legislative committee.

In addition to highlighting the significance of early nurturing, the proposal, which would also toughen criminal-background-check requirements, is an attempt to stem cases of neglect, officials say.

In a recent case in Prince George's County, Md., a family-day-care home was closed after one provider was found to be caring for 54 children, including 13 infants.

When large numbers of babies are "basically warehoused in a room," Ms. Ward said, officials have found that infants do not respond to stimulation, cry, or coo normally.

"We're seeing a pattern where these babies are not responding," she said.

The nurturing rule, Ms. Feldman added, reflects concern that child-care staffs are often not well paid, "which sometimes hampers getting high-quality care," and that few are trained in infant care.

"It's just part of trying to ensure that if infants, who need a lot of [nurturing] for normal development, are going to be spending that much time [in day care], that it's a major part of the program," said Janet Oppenheimer, executive director of Maryland's Montgomery County Child Care Association, a nonprofit child-care operation with 14 sites. "As sad as it is, that isn't always a given."

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