Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has described the mistreatment of children uncovered at three creches for an RTÉ documentary as emotional abuse.
The minister said footage that was secretly filmed for an undercover investigation into childcare standards was “deeply distressing and absolutely shocking”.
“I felt I witnessed the emotional abuse of children,” Minister Fitzgerald said.
Secretly recorded footage at three creches in Dublin and Wicklow showed childcare staff tossing children, screaming at them and snatching toys from their hands.
Some of the footage, which was recorded by an RTÉ researcher who had gone undercover as a worker at the childcare centres, showed toddlers strapped in highchairs for hours on end without anything to stimulate them.
Ms Fitzgerald said some children were treated with “ritualistic kinds of demand”, which were inappropriate for their age.
She said not enough attention had been given to the childcare sector over the last 10 years.
Annie Callinan, the head of the HSE's Quality Assurance Child and Family Services, said inspection reports - which have only been internal up until now - will be available to parents this year.
Minister Fitzgerald told RTÉ Radio that more Health Service Executive (HSE) inspections need to be carried out across the country and that she would consider recruiting more inspectors to cope with the increased workload.
“You have to change the culture, you have to be vigilant, you have to monitor, you have to inspect, you have to train, you have to have people with qualifications,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“All of that applies to this sector.”
The minister pointed out that two separate investigations are being carried out by the HSE and gardaí into the creches probed in the documentary.
The centres involved are Little Harvard in Rathnew in Co Wicklow, Giraffe in Belarmine, Stepaside and Links in Malahide, Dublin.
Footage of the Links creche showed one child being tossed on to a mat during sleep time.
“I think parents watching that will be very haunted by these images,” Ms Fitzgerald said of the programme, which aired last night.
“When anybody sees abuse going on, when they see inappropriate behaviour with young children, that’s deeply disturbing.
“To see the developmental needs of young children not being met as we saw last night, obviously that would strike horror into every parent watching.”
Meanwhile the head of the children's charity Barnardos has said that the HSE may not be the right organisation to regulate childcare services in Ireland.
Fergus Finlay says the Health Service Executive's approach to regulation is one of health and safety only - and fails to consider the relationship between the carer and child.
"I think a serious question has to be asked about whether the HSE is even the right body to be carrying out these inspections," Mr Finlay said.
"To me it's a amazing that you have a system of pre-school education in Ireland that the Department of Education has nothing whatsoever to do with.
"(The Department) was not even mentioned in the context of last night's programme."
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) said it was shocked and appalled by the revelations on the RTE programme A Breach Of Trust.
The charity said the lack of care, warmth and attention shown to some children was deeply disturbing, and that it was clear the level of statutory inspections is below par.
ISPCC director of services Caroline O’Sullivan added: “In the aftermath of the disturbing RTE Prime Time programme the ISPCC is keen to reassure parents that this may not be indicative of childcare across the whole country, and we would urge parents to make contact with their own creches to seek this reassurance.”
The Association of Childhood Professionals said it was concerned at repeated instances of unacceptable practices.
It called on Government to work with childhood professionals to ensure high quality provision in the sector and to ensure the implementation of national standards.
Chairperson Marian Quinn said: “The development of the childhood sector requires quality standards for training, professional development and inspection.
“It also requires commensurate pay for workers and Government commitment to ongoing development based upon evidence and best practice.”