'It is a thing you would not even do to a dog,' Judge Michael Harrison Hall said at Warwick Crown Court. The 23-year-old mother, who lives in a village near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, admitted cruelty to her daughter by ill-treating, neglecting or abandoning her between October 1991 and October last year.
Ian Morris, for the prosecution, said the mother had been living in a bedsit until she was offered a job at a travel agency in Stratford and moved into a furnished house in the village.
At first she sent the girl to a child minder at a farm, but it cost her pounds 50 a week of her pounds 100 take-home pay. When the girl developed asthma she was taken from the farm and the mother could not afford to send her to another child minder.
For the first 10 months the mother returned home at lunch- time to feed her daughter, but the girl became upset when she had to go back to work. 'She could not cope with that, but rather than getting help she then left the child alone all day from 8.45 until 5.45 from August until October.'
Mr Morris said the little girl was left with a drink, some toys, and the television on. The mother removed items which could cause harm from the three rooms the girl had access to - the living-room, her bedroom and a downstairs lavatory. The curtains were kept closed because the mother feared someone would look in and alert social services.
In October last year, social workers were tipped off and alerted the police who got into the house by breaking a window. 'The girl seemed quite happy, but was pleased to have someone to talk to,' Mr Morris said.
The mother told the police: 'It was a choice between food and clothes and a child minder. I don't know if I thought about the risk. I suppose I put it to the back of my mind . . . It was a case of that or not keeping my job and living on benefit,' she added.
Stephen Waine, for the defence, said: 'The most fortunate aspect is that in fact no harm came to the child. It is the fear of what might have happened which is the serious aspect. In fairness, she minimised the risks but never managed to put it out of her mind and sometimes had panic attacks at work.'
The judge said: 'Having had a child, the absolute priority is to look after it. There must be an alternative to leaving a child alone all day, a thing you would not even do to a dog.'
Jailing the mother, whom he ordered should not be identified to protect the girl, who is now living with her grandmother in Essex, the judge said: 'The dangers do not need spelling out. You knew perfectly well it was wrong because you tried to conceal it.'