I can remember how my mother would sigh when we passed the local nursery.

"Still full," she would say. I used to wonder what lay beyond its railings to excite such yearning in her.

I didn't know what a nursery was. I'd no idea that what she yearned for was freedom from me.

Now I feel sorry for her. I arrived six years after she thought her family was complete. Instead of spreading her wings she was once again tied to daily domestic duties.

I spent most of my time outdoors but her constant presence gave me a secure base to which I could retreat when tired or hungry, cold or in need of reassurance. In other words I had the normal childhood for a person of my generation.

It's all so different now.

I know of no young couples who are raising their children this way. They have a mother's help or au-pair or they ship the pre-school children to a child-minder.

Most say they have no choice. Their career prospects will suffer if they take an extended break. It is an economic necessity to have two incomes. But even those who could get by financially don't choose to be round-the-clock parents.

They love their children but, as one said to me, "I love them more when my life is balanced with work than when I am stuck at home running after them all the time".

Like many of their contemporaries, her babies went into a crèche shortly after their first birthday. I heard this at the same time as reading that the greatest predictor of adult life satisfaction is emotional health in childhood.

So if early day care is to be the norm, what safeguards do we need to make sure that the emotional needs of the next generation are met?

The new understanding that childhood emotional wellbeing is key to a fulfilled adulthood comes from the Wellbeing research programme at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance. Its study analysed data from around 9,000 people over 40 years.

Not only do the findings demonstrate the importance of a happy childhood, they also show the least important predictor of life satisfaction is intellectual performance.

It is revelatory given the emphasis parents have been putting on school marks and exam results. Not just parents, policy makers too presumed educational attainment was the key to a child's future well-being. And consequently children have been under increasing pressure to score.

Michael Rutter, known as "the father of child psychology", wrote in 1971: "Misconceptions, myths and false knowledge on the effects of different patterns of child rearing are rife.It is not the ignorance as such which is harmful but rather our 'knowing' so many things that are not true."

Clearly the observation is as valid today. I say this with humility since I can't find the evidence to support my instinctive aversion to day-care for the very young. On the contrary, a study carried out by Rutter suggests that so long as day-care is of a high standard, there are few, if any, ill-effects.

I cannot contradict dispassionate evidence yet I retain an instinct to go and rescue babies and toddlers from crèches. And there is some rationale behind my response.

For example, we know that at birth a child will have 25 per cent of its brain capacity. Age three that has grown to 80 per cent.

We also know that during the early months and years a baby's self-image is laid down through interaction with the mother (or primary carer) and then the father and siblings.

If in the early days, the baby receives what the paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott describes as "good enough mothering" it will help to give it strong emotional foundations.

I feel that should happen at home. There is a general consensus the first 1,000 days are vital - that is from the start of the pregnancy to the second birthday.

In an ideal world I would organize society to offer a newborn's parents career breaks to care for the child until it was at least two years old.

But, as I have said, society is headed in the opposite direction.

Already some employers find maternity leave for the mother a burden.

In the present climate I can't imagine it being extended to offer fathers a year off. And even if it were accepted for the first child, it would surely be deemed unreasonable for the second or third.

Obviously, loving parents do their research and choose the best substitute care they can afford.

But given the eye-watering cost how many feel they have to settle for second best? It goes without saying the baby who has consistent care in a crèche with a high staff-baby ratio is more fortunate than one left in a nursery with a big turnover of staff.

It is also the case that both are better off than a baby at home with neglectful parents.

Since our society is moving towards a model of communal child rearing, I wish we were doing it in a less piecemeal fashion.

It seems to me it is being worked out almost parent by parent, like patchwork. Some turn to grandparents, others hire a nanny or a series of au-pairs. It feels as if we lack a uniform system for a task that is crucially important for the children and also for society. It will bear a heavy cost if we damage a generation.

I remember a film with Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney playing two single working parents stuck with their children on a working day. They shuffled them around like lost luggage. Have things moved on all that much? Isn't our provision too ad-hoc?

Norway, by comparison, is sorted. It offers parents 44 weeks of full paid leave or 54 weeks on 80 per cent of salary. (A further year can be taken without pay.) At the end of that period children go to day-care.

The offering seems to meet a national standard in which staff are trained. The carer to child ratio is good. The cost is held to an affordable maximum - thanks to a state subsidy - and there is a discount if two children attend.

I am sure that what is available here also meets a standard but there is a more homogenised feel about child care in Norway. I can imagine a Norwegian parent will feel the same level of trust about day-care as parents here do when they deliver a child to Primary One.

And their care offering continues in the form of local authorities being obliged to provide pre and after-school care. It is as if the state acts as a third parent filling in the gaps so that every child gets a decent start.

It must lift the pressure on the parents both financially and in terms of guilt. In turn that will reduce stress when the family does come together at home. And therein lies the kernel of the issue.

Because, however much time they get to spend at home with the family, it is the degree of warmth and loving affection they receive there that matters most of all to the wellbeing of the child.