Oliver James: Baby shambles

Most mothers of under-threes either do not want to do paid work or only want to do a small amount. Despite being accorded a status lower than street-sweeper, only 13 per cent of mothers of under-threes work full-time (40 per cent work part-time, mostly less than 20 hours a week).

In a survey of 196 mothers of under-fours in Kilburn, north London, 65 per cent had no paid employment. Most felt that 'helping children to grow up is life's greatest joy' (Valuing Informal Care, Belinda Brown). The mothers were far less likely to speak about their desire to return to work, and much more so about the pressures they felt under to do so. If paid work was considered, few wanted to put their children in group daycare.

These findings fly in the face of government policy, which is to use its Sure Start programme to create 3,500 Child Centres, one of the main purposes of which will be to make group daycare available to all, rich and poor. Sure Start has slithered away from an emphasis on meeting children's needs to getting mothers out to work.

If the government really wanted to respond to parents' wishes and foster a better meeting of the needs of under-threes - the crucial time for establishing mental health - it would concentrate far more resources on helping parents meet them. Instead of spending £20bn on a new nuclear-missile programme, it would find ways to help families to help each other, and where clinical input is required, provide much more for fostering infant mental health.

This is already done, with extraordinary vivacity, by Home-Start, largely through volunteers. The core problem for mothers of infants is lack of sleep, with resultant irascibility and feeling out of control. Home-Start provides the practical and emotional support which is so desperately lacking in an atomised society. While it is very grateful for its government grant, the mind boggles at how much good it could do with some of the missile billions.

For the many parents who find relating to their babies difficult, a lot more money could be spent on parent-infant psychotherapy (see The Practice of Psychoanalytic ParentInfant Psychotherapy, by Tessa Baradon). Voluntary organisations such as Oxpip, which helps mothers with relationship difficulties in Oxford, greatly improve infant mental health. Doing so reduces both serious mental illness and criminality in later life.

While TV programmes such as Supernanny suggest useful tips for discipline, by then the damage is done. Likewise, parent education courses are all very well, but in such courses the needs of parents to learn crowd control are liable to dwarf those of small children. All this would be immediately apparent to Brown and Blair if they were forced to care exclusively for their small offspring for a week, without any help. Our society's greatest handicap is that the people who run it haven't the foggiest idea of how difficult it is to meet infants' needs - or how crucial.

The mental block

A study of homosexuality among New Zealanders in their early twenties (Psychological Medicine) finds that 3.9 per cent of men and 1.6 per cent of women were exclusively of that persuasion. In this still-homophobic nation, they had sky-high rates of mental illness: 71 per cent of gay men were depressed (11 times more than exclusively heterosexual men). Implication: nothing like 10 per cent of people (the proportion famously given by Kinsey) are exclusively gay - many studies in other nations show similarly low rates (2-3 per cent for young men, 1-2 per cent for women, although around 5-7 per cent are bisexual); however, homophobia is still a problem beyond the Antipodes, as gay people nearly everywhere have poorer mental health.

Homosexuals have the highest spending power of any minority group, but major corporations are very reluctant to use explicitly homosexual images when advertising in mainstream media, for fear of alienating heterosexuals. A study (Psychology and Marketing) investigating how to get round this problem found that heterosexuals disliked ads using explicitly gay images (eg of two gay men as a couple). It also found that gay and lesbian consumers preferred explicitly homo rather than heterosexual ad images. The solution was to use implicitly homosexual imagery, such as double-entendres (eg when a beer bottle is removed from a six-pack, the copy read 'another one is coming out'). The implicit imagery did not put off heteros, while still ringing the homo bell. Implication: advertising is the devil's work.

· oliver.james@observer.co.uk

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