JAY BELSKY, a professor of human development at Penn State University, knows how to spark a controversy: Suggest, as he did six years ago, that more than 20 hours of day care a week during a baby's first year can be harmful to some infants.
"I unknowingly put my head on the block," Dr. Belsky says, recalling the furor he created among child-care experts and parents with his 1986 report "Infant Day Care: A Cause for Concern?" He refuses to back down. In the ensuing years, he says, evidence has continued to emerge that "early and extensive care of the kind we have in this country is associated with insecure attachment to parents and elevated rates of aggression."
Even so, the demand for infant care grows. Half of all mothers with children under the age of one now work at least part of the year, prompting Belsky to dub the 1990s "The Decade of Infant Day Care."
Speaking last week at a conference on family journalism sponsored by the Rockford Institute, Belsky explained that the increase in nonmaternal care for babies has created a "dramatic social change unlike anything any society has seen before. I don't think there's any historical parallel to handing over kids younger and younger, longer and longer, to care givers who don't have enduring relationships with families either before or after the care is provided."
Some of Belsky's critics like to point out that in so-called primitive societies, nonmaternal care was the norm. He counters by noting that in those cultures, "Kids were not handed off to people parents didn't know well. Conditions under which children are cared for today are decidedly different."
Belsky does not oppose day care if the timing and amount are appropriate for a child. Nor does he think the type of care - nanny, family day care, child-care center - is the critical issue. What matters most is the quality of care, "the daily experiences the child has, day in and day out."
Quality remains a little-discussed subject. Yet as one measure of the need for improvement, a late-1980s study of 227 day-care centers in three metropolitan areas rated the average quality of care as "barely adequate."
For his part, Belsky would like to see parents have better options to work part time or not at all during a baby's first year.
Easier said than done. When a paycheck is a necessity or when an employee risks losing a job by taking a leave, infant care can become the only apparent option. One essential solution involves improving the quality of care for all children. Pay child-care teachers more than the minimum wage to end revolving-door staff turnover. And help parents become better consumers of child care. "Middle-class parents often buy walls, carpets, toys - that doesn't matter," Belsky says. "They don't look under the hood."
Other help could come through the family leave bill, twice vetoed by President Bush but supported by President-elect Clinton. It would grant parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Even that will still leave many babies in day care for much of their first year. The most far-reaching solutions require a broader cultural shift that makes it possible - and socially acceptable - for parents to interrupt careers to care for infants.
Joan Beck, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a conference participant, explains the changes this way: "We need to take the stance that we now have a new work force, and we need a new workplace. We have not looked closely enough at how we can help mothers and babies. We need to look more at how we restructure work than how we restructure family life." Flexible at-home work, extended leaves, job-sharing, and part-time options benefit men and women, fathers and mothers.
At a time when the state of American education - everything from classroom size to curriculum - is under scrutiny, a parallel need remains equally urgent: improving the quality of child care, especially as it affects its youngest clients. "Looking under the hood," as Belsky phrases it, and fixing whatever doesn't run smoothly could put the United States solidly on the road to world-class day care.