Even poor childcare may make no difference to a child from a stable family, while good-quality care may provide positive benefits for a child. Ann Mooney and Tony Munton from the Thomas Coram Research Unit at London University's Institute for Education say the time has come to lay to rest for ever arguments about whether mothers should work. Then, they say, we can begin to move forward to a debate about how to provide enough good childcare.
They point out that families in Britain have changed fundamentally in the past 25 years. In more than 70 per cent of two-parent families with dependent children, both parents work and the proportion of children living in single-parent families has risen from 8 to 21 per cent.
The researchers attack interpretations of the classic theory of emotional attachment developed more than 40 years ago by Dr John Bowlby, which confirmed children's deep-seated need to bond with their mothers. Bowlby studied children in residential care and concluded that they were insecure and failed to develop warm relationships with others later in life because they had been separated from their mothers. But, say the Coram Unit researchers, his work was wrongly interpreted as applying to all types of childcare.
A vast body of research since then does not support the view that healthy development depends on children becoming attached to their mothers. Indeed, work by Professor Sir Michael Rutter of the Institute of Psychiatry has shown that children can cope well with several adults caring for them, provided people with whom they have secure relationships are available when they need them.
The most recent authoritative study from the National Institute of Child Health and Development in the United States, to be published shortly, traced 1,300 children from birth to the age of seven. It found no differences in emotional development between children cared for only by their mothers and those who had other carers. Overall, even children under one whose mothers worked did not suffer. Family background proved to be the most important factor in how children developed. Even poor childcare made no difference to those from secure family backgrounds.
Nor does evidence from other cultures support that view that young children need to be cared for exclusively by their mothers, says the study. In a review of parenting in 186 non-industrial societies, mothers were the exclusive carer in only five. The researchers' main message is the need for better-quality affordable childcare. Services are too fragmented at present, they say.
Mr Munton said: "We know that daycare doesn't do children any harm, especially if it is of good quality. Children need a small number of key people who are always there when they need them. The multiple care arrangements we have, with some children being passed from nursery education to playgroups to childminders, are doing kids no favours".
He said a national strategy for childcare which ensured that all those in childcare were properly trained and paid was vital. Nannies, he pointed out, are still unregulated. Ministers have said that all four-year- olds will have a nursery place by next September. Local authorities have been asked to set up forums which bring together private, voluntary and public providers of education for the under-fives and excellence centres for all early-years services are being piloted. Mr Munton said: "We are at crossroads. We now have a government committed to early- years provision. We need to ensure that it is done properly."
Alison Holleworth, 29, lives in Chesterfield and works for the Midland Bank in Sheffield as a purchasing assistant. She has been married to Sean, an electrical engineer, for eight years. Her son, Patrick, was born three years ago and attends the bank-run creche across the road from her office.
She says: "His development has improved at the creche. And if I talk to the girls who work there when I pick him up they give me lots of pointers as to what he might need extra help with."
She has always doubted reports that working mothers are damaging their children. "I can never see any damage at all to Patrick"
She does, however, admit to pangs of guilt. "You are bound to have a bit of worry sometimes, say when Patrick is not feeling on top form. In my situation I would not have been able to stay at home - for my own career prospects and for financial reasons. Before I had Patrick I went to night classes and took exams in order to qualify. All that would have been a waste of time if I had stayed at home now."
Dinah Rose, 32, is a barrister living in east London, who specialises in sex discrimination cases. In 1994 she successfully sought compensation for the first woman soldier to be dismissed by the Ministry of Defence for being pregnant. Her own daughter, Hannah, was born seven months ago and she went back full-time to chambers in September, leaving the child in the care of a nanny. She is finding the separation from her baby quite gruelling.
"I went back to work because it is very hard indeed to work part-time as a barrister," she says. "I don't think Hannah minds, but I miss her terribly.
"If I am very busy, it's fine. I can just put it out of my mind. But then sometimes I realise with a shock that I have got a baby and I think, 'How can anyone possibly forget that they have a baby?'"
She finds her anger centred on the strange patterns of life that parents are forced into.
"The problem of how to deal with maternity is the biggest problem that women face in relation to their working lives. We have got to find a way to bring our working lives and our home lives closer together.
"I know a lot of men feel similarly deprived."
She says colleagues at her chambers have been supportive.
"The people I work with are sympathetic and luckily there are a few of us who can talk together and show each other our photos."
When it comes to the optimistic conclusions of the survey, she is sceptical.
"Whether mothers are really happier working or not, I don't know.
"I come from a generation where we were all told we would not be fulfilled if we stayed at home. But there is quite a substantial part of me, and of my husband too for that matter, that loves just being at home.
"I was very happy on maternity leave, but we have come too far now to start saying mothers should be at home."
Emma Robson, 35, is a televison producer working for Reuters. She is married with two children, Leslie, 6, and Louise, 2. The family live near Barnes in south London and, for her, there was never any question of staying at home with the babies: "I would have gone crazy if I didn't work. It would also have made a difference to the kind of house we could live in. By that stage we were already committed and we needed two salaries coming in."
At first she employed a series of live-out nannies. Now she employs a live-in nanny, which she finds more convenient.
"We have built up trust with most of them and the majority have stayed for about a year, although we have had a couple of bad moments - for example, when I discovered one of my previous nannies was an alcoholic."
The effect on Louise and Leslie of their parents' decision to keep working has been positive, she believes. "My children are very well balanced and I think a bit more extrovert because they are used to different people. They are perhaps more sociable."
Case studies by Vanessa Thorpe