Why Sweden is not the Perfect Parenting Example We thought it Was

If I read an article about schooling, bedsharing and generally ‘positive parenting’ practices it’s almost guaranteed that Sweden will get a mention only a few paragraphs in.

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Held in incredibly high regard because of their long maternity leave (almost a year and a half at 80% of full salary) and even more so for their forward thinking shared parental leave which has been in existence since 1974 Swedish policy makers can certainly be described as ‘forward thinking’.

Then there is the relative normality of bedsharing with some studies reporting up to 65% of new babies sharing the Swedish family bed and the high incidence of breastfeeding. In Sweden a huge 84% of mothers exclusively breastfeed at birth and 53% are still exclusively breastfeeding at 4 months postpartum, this is in stark contrast to the 65% of mothers who exclusively breastfeed at birth and the 7% who are still exclusively breastfeeding at 4 months postpartum in the UK.

Add to this Sweden’s C-Section rate of 17.1% compared to the UK’s 23.7, It is little wonder that the prevalence of postnatal depression is significantly lower in Sweden at 9% compared to the UK incidence of 14.4%.

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Lastly, there is the delayed age of starting school in Sweden, commonly quoted as the ‘best schooling system’ in the world, with children beginning kindergarten/preschool at the age of 6 years and not beginning formal education until they reach 7 years old, a full 3 years later than the beginning of formal education in the UK.

It really does seem as if Sweden has this parenting business licked doesn’t it?

However what the glowing articles don’t mention is the immense pressure for mothers to return to full time work and leave their very young children in the care of heavily subsidised daycare. At first glance this may seem like another tremendous positive of the Swedish lifestyle with the Swedish government promising affordable childcare for all, with the maximum Swedish childcare fee capped at 1,260 SEK per month (approximately £102) for the first child and less for subsequent children. Compared to the average UK nursery bill of around £700 per month. What the glossy reports fail to mention though is the effect of effectively forcing new mothers back into the full time workplace, on the mothers themselves and perhaps most importantly the children. A point that is surely pertinent considering that 90% of Swedish children grow up in the care of nurseries and childminders rather than at home with their parent(s).

Another point that rarely makes it into the glowing Swedish parenting articles is that home education has been illegal in the country since 2010, whilst it is supposedly allowed under special circumstances (e.g: student health reasons or family travel) these special circumstances are virtually never approved and the relevant officials often ignore legally permitted appeals.

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There is a growing level of dis-ease with the Swedish system that is slowly filtering through the otherwise positive articles with researcher Jonas Himmelstrand leading the way in trying to raise awareness. Himmelstrand is less than a fan of the Swedish system and when asked about the UK Government’s proposals to emulate the system commented “‘Swedish schools have among the highest truancy, the greatest classroom disorder, the most damage to property and the most offensive language of all comparable nations…Emulating the Swedish approach, where both the staff-to-child ratio and the number of hours children spend in day care are both increasing, is not the answer and is actually damaging to your children’s future.”

Himmelstrand points to the tripled rates of psychological problems suffered by Swedish schoolgirls since the 1980s and also mentions that the Swedish schooling system, widely regarded as perhaps the best in the world, now produce average results and are below average for maths; and that Swedish schools now have among the worst discipline problems in Europe. Media reports of Himmelstrand’s recent speech at the House of Commons can be seen HERE.

With a current rate of 92 per cent of all 18 months to five-year-olds in Sweden in day care, some even at night time, you only have to wonder what the long term effects of this policy will be. Back in 1951 John Bowlby discussed his now famous maternal deprivation hypothesis and commented that “…the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.” indicating that the first three years of life are crucial for the future emotional and physical health of the child. I find Sweden’s parenting decisions curious indeed – on the one hand supportive of natural birth and the immediate needs of the postnatal mother and newborn, but why the dramatic change in the child’s second year of life? What price will Sweden’s future generations face for their early and prolonged seperation of mother and child? Perhaps they are not really the parenting gurus we thought they were?

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies, Education, Mothering, Preschoolers, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Why Sweden is not the Perfect Parenting Example We thought it Was

  1. Kerstin says:

    I very much believe the first five years of life are not called formative years for nothing. I am in the unusual position that I can speak with the benefit of hindsight. My older children are 17 and 14. My younger ones 3 and 1.
    Bringing up young children is hard and tiring work. I am so fortunate to see my hard work paying off with my older ones, who are considerate, polite and generally a pleasure to be with, despite being at a “difficult age”. All the foundation for that was laid when they were at the age of my younger ones and it encourages me enormously to be the best parent I can be.
    I don’t care how often I read that children benefit from being at nursery. In my humble opinion a loving, caring parent that also reads a few books on child development is a million times better than a nursery – state funded or otherwise.

  2. Jess says:

    Great article and something to think about. But I always feel frustrated when there is mention of mother being separated from her child and the impact of that to the child. Do you mean to say ‘mother’ or should you being saying ‘parent’? There are a lot of fathers out there who provide full time care for their children – is this considered second best? I just feel when using the term ‘mother’ that it should be made clear whether you mean ‘mother’ or you actually mean ‘parent’.

    • Actually, here I do specifically mean ‘mother’. This is not dismissing the importance of fathers at all, but research tells us that during the first three years of life it is the attachment with the mother that is most important. In our quest to be ‘PC’ I am concerned that we are loosing the importance of this, of course a father is as important but there is no denying that mothers and fathers do play different roles and each bring their own unique, specialness to the parent-child relationship.

  3. Leila says:

    Wow – only 7% of UK women breastfeed exclusively at 4months! That’s a scarily low number :-(. They did a piece on Sweden’s childcare system on woman’s hour (R4) a few months ago, praising the subsidised nursery care – it made me so glad that we don’t have such subsidised care in this country so I’m not faced with feeling forced back to work – I’d welcome subsidies to stay at home, but the other way around is all wrong surely, unless women genuinely feel they would be a better parent by going back to work I guess?

      • Morten says:

        Nobody is being forced back to work Sarah. Its a choice. You can stay at home, or take part time for the first few years if you like. You cant compare a British nursery to a Swedish and conclude that a stay at home mother will always be the desired thing. The teacher/child ratio is better, and there are no volunteers with a 3 month course ! It takes the better part of 4 years to become fully qualified in a Scandinavian nursery/kindergarden. Parenting is difficult these days. Everyday you see/hear people who are completety incompetent as parents. Having professionals involved in your childs upbringing from an early age, can only be an advantage in my view 😉

      • m says:

        Hi Sarah, I had a baby in Sweden and it also found the statement about mothers being forced to go back to work a bit hmm offensive? I decided to go back to work part-time when my daughter was about 8 months old because I wanted it and I needed it. Her father takes care of her when I am at work. Yes, Swedish system I designed the way it makes is particularly suitable for working moms (usually meaning going back to work full time during the second year of your child’s life) but I have never intended to stay at home longer than this and never wanted it. We are planning to send our daughter to a daycare in a few months but definitely I do not want to keep her there full time. In short, as a working mum I am happy to have my baby in Sweden.

  4. Svenny says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I am swedish but live in uk and often discuss the things you mention with disbelieving brits.
    Another thing worth mentioning is early weaning and almost total absence of extended breastfeeding. Yes, most start off bf but at 6 months most babies are on a gluten/carb heavy cereal drink. And HVs don’t use WHOs charts for bf babies (1970s formula charts are used) so of course the few babies who are bf are seen as too small 😦

  5. Marie says:

    Hi! Im a swedish mum of 2. Ages 1,5 and 3 years. I found your artical very intresting!

    There is some things i like to point out thouh. We have a sertern amount of days that we can stay at home. It you take 7 days a week you get 80% of your sallery, and you can stay home about 1 year. If you want to stay home longer, you take less days a week. Which meens less money.

    To day, we have a place to live, a car to drive, bills to pay. And alot of sweeds, feel the need to get thin fast, still have all the nice cloeths and nice homes so alot of us cant afford to stay at home more then about 1,5.

    I think it is importent to se to the individual, some children are very social and have a bigger need for stimulans of friends even at 1,5 years.

  6. theoress says:

    Great post! It is odd how they have so much good stuff then don’t seem to value at all mothering for toddlers and beyond. Thank you for pointing this out!

  7. cecilia lawrence says:

    I am Swedish and find this article really negative. Living abroad I get chocked on a daily basis because the majority of other nationalities have much less respect for children than we do. I am so proud that we were first to abolish corporal punishments, have long maternity leave, late school starts, and 2 weeks of gentrle settling in periods in nurseries. Is there any of the above that you are better at in the UK???? Plus the majority of Swedish mums dont like / use cry it out methods as they label it as ‘ child abuse’ on parenting forums and also dont use time outs much. No country is perfect but I think we have much more positive to offer in Sweden than we have negatives and the world has alot to learn.

    • I did not read this article as a slight against Sweden, we know that in the UK there is a lot to be desired in parenting and education! It is only that some mums think that things would be ideal if we followed Sweden’s example, only Sarah pointed out that we can do even better than that. It is only when we seek truth that we can find the solutions

  8. I think we will always look at things differently looking in from the outside. I grew up in the Soviet Union with free childcare (and patents forced back early to work for the Soviet state) and school from 7, and a long 3 month break for summer. To someone it may seem not idea but I believe it was better than what my son will have to do here in the UK. Seriously considering homeschooling him as I believe it’s way to early to start school at 4.

  9. Carolina says:

    Really found this article an eye opener. I was raving to my colleagues about Swedish parent leave, but this really does shed new perspective. Especially the pressure to return to work for the mother. And the amount of time a child is placed in daycare even at night. Wow.

  10. Michelle Hay says:

    There difference is their nurseries/daycare etc have highly trained staff unlike many of the nurseries in the UK. The majority of them are teachers, whereas in the uk, there only requires one teacher trained member of staff per 15-30 children depending on the age. They also DON’T have the tick box style curriculum to follow that the UK has and they base it on a ‘home from home’ type of setting. I am a childminder and chose to stay at home because I couldn’t bear to leave my children in a setting of any kind. I am now nearing the end of undertaking a teacher qualification and can honestly say they still have it right over there with regard to nurseries/education. A lot of people are forced back to work anyhow in the UK and get stung with MASSIVE fees. At least you have more of a choice over there.

  11. Eilidh says:

    I am from the uk but live in Norway where the system is very similar to Sweden. I am a stay at home mum with a 20 month old and a 3 and a half year old and am seen as a real anomaly here. I am under constant criticism that’s children need more so iCal interaction and need to learn to be independent. I find myself reading your pages to reassure myself that I’m not all alone in my beliefs. I find it strange here that almost every child is in full time care, age 1. There are so few people who make different choices there are no daytime activities for toddlers or preschoolers. It’s all in the evenings, when my kids are too tired to give their best. They say Norway is one of the best counties to be a woman in, because of the female work force. But if you want to stay he with your kids, it’s really challenging and you have to defend your decisions daily. They are pro breast feeding and natural birth but age 1 they are pushed out the nest. It seems a little contradictory to me.
    So, thank you for all you write, it reassures me that my desions have some grounding.

  12. Sylvie d'Aragon says:

    Interesting article: I would like to point out that many toddlers love going to daycare: they receive high quality care, learn a lot through the existing stimulation activities and through peer observation and interaction. Also, being a stay-at-home parent for longer than the paid parental leave, is a luxury most families can’t afford. Finally, there are also parents who acknowledge that being with young children 24/7 drains their patience, even though they love them passionately. They need space for their own needs and aspirations besides being a parent.

    • mkbz says:

      “Finally, there are also parents who acknowledge that being with young children 24/7 drains their patience, even though they love them passionately. They need space for their own needs and aspirations besides being a parent.”

      Yes, to this! I would argue that Sweden is currently the best country in the world to be a working woman. I had my daughter during my PhD studies – everybody was supportive. I took as much full-time maternity as I wanted, and then I continued to work part-time/part-time on maternity leave. I know I would not be happy to be at home 24/7. My daughter is now 15 months old now and still not in daycare but we will probably send her in a couple/ a few months. Sarah wrote in her article about dramatic changes during child’s second year of life. Well, my daughter is still breastfed and still bed sharing even though I am back at work. Seriously, people who send their 1 year olds to daycare/go back to work do not change their entire parenting approach just because of this.

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