The Deal With Daycare

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By Tracy G. Cassels

Daycare: a word that tends to strike fear in the heart of most parents.  The idea of passing up your baby, infant, toddler, or child to someone else to take care of stresses almost every parent out to some degree or another.  After all, you wouldn’t walk up to a stranger on the street and hand over your child, would you?  And while daycare is qualitatively different than that (these people are trained and licensed – well, most of the time), that doesn’t stop the barrage of bad stories you hear about in the news of day care workers neglecting or even abusing the young children in their care (see [1][2][3][4] for examples).  We also have to consider that daycare work isn’t always going to attract the most stable people, even though these people will be working with children.  It’s woefully underpaid, the hours are long and let’s face it, the work can suck.  For most, it’s not an ideal job.  At best, you get people who don’t need a decent income in order to live and so they can do the job out of love (these are the best and when you get someone like this – cherish them).  At most, you can end up with individuals who are working towards something more coming in part time and liking the work they do, but the turnover will be high.  At worst, you get individuals who simply aren’t qualified—mentally or otherwise—to care for children but because of demand, they find a job working with kids.  Comparing this with the alternative of children being cared for by family, it’s a bit of a letdown, to say the least.  Excluding the really horrible, many of us also wonder what more subtle damage is being done to our children by placing them in care.  Are we harming our children by placing them in the care of others for hours a day?  What about starting care as early as six weeks, as some individuals have to?  Has the break-down of our community and sense of value placed on family placing a disproportionate amount of the burden on our youngest?

Contrary to what we might expect, there actually are studies that suggest there is no qualitative difference between extended use of daycare and child problems.  One such study[5] out of Canada was cited by the government in a court case over a woman requesting extended maternity leave benefits for having had twins with special needs.  This study, conducted by economists, used large national data to examine the question of whether or not greater time at home, due to an increase in parental leave in Canada from six months to a year, resulted in better child outcomes.  Based on their analyses, mothers were spending an additional three months at home, on average, and child outcomes were no better than when the maternity leave levels were lowers and children were put into daycare.  A few problems though (aren’t there always?).  First, an additional three months is hardly comparable to having policies that allow for family to stay home for extended periods of time, like Finland or Sweden or Norway, where mothers can take up to 2 or 3 years unpaid parental leave.  Second, the child outcome measures were all maternal-report which is known to have a huge confounding interest when it’s a parent who spends more time with their child.  When you only spend 4 hours a day with your kid when he or she is awake, then the question “How much does your child cry?” is going to elicit a very different answer than when you spend 12 hours a day with him or her.  It’s like comparing apples and oranges—an accurate assessment simply can’t be made.  Third, the results are based on statistical analyses that don’t account for the time-series nature of the data.  Not using appropriate time-series techniques has been known to cause problems with respect to the interpretations of the results.  Fourth, similar to point one, the data focuses on women who returned to work, not those who decided to stay home with their children, so the comparison is between children who got, on average, six months with a parent and nine.  No comparisons to those who got six months, nine months, and then three years.  One last thing (that was even brought up by the authors), the change in policy also led to a drastic decline in babies being cared for by smaller, home daycares and family members.  When mothers returned to work after six months, they were placing their children in the care of friends and family, but after 12 months, their kids are going to group daycares.  That’s a very significant point that the authors make little of.  The individual care and attention the children are getting is much closer to a parent’s at a small daycare or with family than in a group setting and this may have been buffering the potential negative effects of daycare use.

However, the majority of work suggests behavioural problems linked to the time a child spends in care outside the home – problems that can persist throughout elementary school (e.g., [6][7][8][9][10]).   But to talk of this as being as simple as a daycare = bad formula also is too simplistic.  Yes, there are deficits associated with daycare, but there may be nuances that can provide some hope for the many families who have to rely on daycare.  In comes Dr. Jay Belsky, a researcher at the University of London (who also serves as an advisor the government there), who is part of a team examining the long term effects of early child-care experiences and the potential mediators and moderators that may explain some of these negative attributes.  Over the years he has hypothesized and studied the reasons why daycare seems to elicit such negative outcomes for children.  Years ago, he hypothesized that one of the mechanisms that may be in place is that child-care induced insecure attachments which led to other problems, such as difficulty regulating emotions, which in turn led to externalizing behaviours[11]; however, upon examination, there was no support for this hypothesis.  A second hypothesis he made was that the time in child-care was time not spent with parents and thus parents didn’t know their children as well and thus had problems regulating their behaviour[12].  This received some confirmation in that early child-care exposure was found to be related to less sensitive maternal behaviour and more conflict in the mother-child interactions[12], but a full explanation, it did not make, and thus more research was undertaken, the results of which are coming out now.

Dr. Belsky and the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development have extensively examined various factors pertaining to child care and long-term outcomes in order to understand these relationships and to advise policy on the matter.  Over the past five years, certain key papers have been published highlighting these findings, and I will share them here.  Note that in all of this research, being raised by a family member who is responsive and caring comes out on top and is most predictive of better positive outcomes and fewer negative ones.  And while that may make some people upset, it’s simply a fact of life.  We are creatures that require an immense amount of time and energy in our early years and the people best equipped to do that are family.  But what Dr. Belsky’s research offers us is hope because there does seem to be a way to minimize the deleterious effects, so let’s get to it…

A.  Child-care Quality and Outcomes (the following sections are based on [13][14][15][16])

This has turned out to be the biggest factor relating to children’s experience in daycare.  And it should come as no surprise, after all, even amongst parents, the quality of care is most important.  Notably, care from relatives was rated as being of higher quality than care by non-relatives and care in centers was found to be of lower quality than any care provided in-home (including nannies).   However, regardless of where the care took place or by whom it took place, the quality of care was found to be related to academic behaviours at 4.5 years of age, grade 1, grade 3, grade 5, and at 15 years of age.  In fact, quality of care was such an important predictor of academic achievement that when placed in a model to test significance of all paths, it alone remained the significant factor (out of amount of time spent in daycare, whether it was a center or home, and then quality).

Quality of child care was also found to be related to externalizing problems (worse care = more problems) at all of these age points.  At age 15, the quality of child care was also mildly associated impulsivity and risk-taking, with lower quality associated with higher values on these outcomes.  The effects of quality of childcare on externalizing problems, however, was also moderated by child temperament.  Specifically, these effects are much stronger for children with a difficult temperament.  Children with difficult temperaments who were in low-quality childcare demonstrated significantly greater externalizing problems and lower social competence.  Similarly, high-quality childcare seemed to help these children by reducing these problems to levels lower than those children of easy temperament in the same high-quality settings.

B.  Quantity of Child Care

Not as significant a predictor as quality of care, the amount of time a child spends in daycare still holds some water.  This is particularly evident in the social domain, though an increase in child-care usage over time (from 3 to 54 months) was associated with lower vocabulary scores by fifth grade.  However, socially, at 4 ½ years of age, children who spent more time in child care were more likely to demonstrate externalizing behaviours and engage in teacher-child conflict.  Luckily, these effects decreased with time during middle childhood, such that by fifth grade, there seemed to be no effects of the quantity of daycare on externalizing problems.  However, something seems to reverse in the teenage years in that the amount of time spent in daycare is significantly associated with impulsivity and risk taking at age 15.  This relationship holds and remains significant even when previous levels of externalizing problems (at 4 ½ and grades 1, 3, and 5) are accounted or controlled for.  It’s unclear why there’s a sudden shift again, but it may be owing to the fact that the teenage years are more tumultuous than middle childhood anyway and so problems that lay dormant for a while, rear their ugly heads again.

C.  Type of Child Care: Centre versus Non-Maternal Home Care

Some individuals have posited that the mere nature of the child care centre poses problems for children.  The large number of kids all together with a larger child-to-staff ratio should equate with poorer outcomes for the kids in their care.  While there was no effect for academic performance, there was some support for this notion in that children who were in centre care showed greater externalizing rates across childhood (4 ½ years through grade five).  Furthermore, centre care interacted with quantity of care in that children who spent more time in child care that was a centre also showed higher levels of externalizing problems in childhood.  By age 15, though, these effects have disappeared.  Important to consider, though, is that centre care is confounded with both quality and quantity.  That is, centre care was linked with lower quality care and a greater amount of time spent in care.  The results listed above are those that held above and beyond this confound, and if we didn’t include quality and quantity in the analysis, all of the aforementioned results would be listed here in the type of care analysis.  So there definitely seems to be some truth the idea that centre care is not-so-great, but by and large it seems due to the poorer quality and the longer hours spent it in than when a child is raised in a smaller home-care, with a nanny, or with relatives.

What’s the take-home message here?  Well, for starters, non-parental early child care comes with a cost and there’s probably no use denying it.  That said, there are clearly differences between types of child care, with family or home-based care typically offering better quality than centre care.  The differences are also magnified for children with a more difficult temperament, making them particularly susceptible to the pitfalls associated with early child care.  My own thoughts are that this is most likely due to the fact that it’s quite difficult for child care workers to provide the type of constant attention these infants and children need with many other children in their midst whereas parents, with their vested interest, are able to do what is needed for their offspring.  Unfortunately, not all parents with high-needs kids have the capacity to afford the high-quality daycares that can help provide protective elements for their children.  Personally, I think we need to find a way to push for higher-quality child care for our children.  If this means reducing the number of child-care centers and returning to smaller, at-home daycares where the smaller child-to-staff ratio means the children receive better care, so be it.  But if we aren’t able to tackle the problems that have led to the widespread use of daycare right away, we can at least focus on getting our children into high quality programs to help ease the long-term effects of child care.

What day care arrangements do you have for your family?  How do you feel about them?  What would you like to have?



[5] Baker M, Milligan K.  Evidence from maternity leave expansions of the impact of maternal care on early child development.  Journal of Human Resources 2010; 45.

[6] Bates J, Marvinney D, Kelly T, Dodge K, Bennett R, Pettit G.  Child care history and kindergarten adjustment.  Developmental Psychology 1994; 30: 690-700.

[7] Magnuson K, Meyers M, Ruhm C, Waldfogel J.  Inequality in preschool education and school readiness.  American Educational Research Journal 2004; 41: 115-157.

[8] Vandell D, Corasaniti H.  Child care and the family: complex contributors to child development.  New Directions for Child Development 1990; 49: 23-37.

[9] Hofferth S.  Child care in the first three years of life and preschoolers’ language and behavior.  Paper presented at the biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development. Albuquerque, NM.  April 1999.

[10] Loeb S, Bridges M, Bassoka D, Fuller B, Rumberger RW.  How much is too much?  The influence of preschhol centers on children’s social and cognitive development.  Economics of Education Review 2007; 26: 52-66.

[11] Belskey J.  Infant day care: a cause for concern?  Zero to Three 1986; 6: 1-9.

[12] Belsky J.  Quantity of nonmaternal care and boys’ problem behavior/adjustment at 3 and 5: exploring the mediating role of parenting.  Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes 1999; 62: 1-21.

[13] Vandell DL, Belsky J, Burchinal M, Steinberg L, Vandergrift N, NICHD ECCRN.  Do effects of early child care extend to age 15 years?  Results from the NICHD study of early child care and youth development.  Child Development 2010; 81: 737-756.

[14] McCartney K, Burchinal M, Clarke-Stewart A, Bub KL, Owen MT, Belsky J.  Testing a series of causal propositions relating time in child care to children’s externalizing behaviours.  Developmental Psychology 2010; 46: 1-17.

[15] Belsky J, Vandell DL, Burchinal M, Clarke-Stewart KA, McCartney K, Owen MT, NICHD ECCRN.  Are there long-term effects of early child care?  Child Development 2007; 78: 681-701.

[16] Pluess M, Belskey J.  Differential susceptibility to rearing experience: the case of childcare.  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2009; 50: 396-404.

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  1. Kendra says

    I have used all of Tue above. My 10 yr old was with a home care provider until he was 2 yrs old and my daughter was 9 months. They then switched to a larger daycare center and my 9 month old suffered. In daycare my son learned to hit, to lie, and the word damnit. This was at a highly rated daycare with organic foods, no tv in the building and low staff to child ratios. My daughter cried for 5 hrs a day for the first 4 days and on the fifth day she stopped crying. She gave up. It was a trying, taxing, horrendous ordeal. But if i hadnt worked we didn’t eat. Adequacy years later I was able to afford a nanny. That arrangement was soooooooo much better. My 8 month old has never seen in a daycare, never had a nanny, never been in home care at another home. My. Mom now lives with us and when I go to work I just hand the baby to Granny. This is by far the best experience. She still clings when she sees me put on shoes or grab my purse but is easily comforted. If i have my way Lily and any other children I have will never see the inside of a daycare center.

    • says

      You’ve described exactly what I fear about daycare. I’m so happy you have an arrangement that works now with your mother watching your daughter. It’s funny how we’ve lost that – it used to be that you got older and started caring for your grandchildren but with people having to work later and later, it’s just not happening as much.

      As to the larger daycare centre, some research that was covered in the reviews suggests that it’s just the mere presence of so many kids that stresses children out, even with a low staff:child ratio. It’s food for thought that one…

  2. Patricia says

    Just thought I’d point out some research that suggests that, for specific groups of at-risk children, daycare attendance may be beneficial. One of my first RA jobs was interviewing mothers for this study of daycare attendance in Quebec. I think the researchers in this study claim that children of low-income low-education mothers actually do better when they are registered in high-quality daycares than when they stay at home. And that one problem with studies coming out of the US is that over there quality of child care is very highly confounded with SES (i.e., there is no such thing as high-quality affordable daycare). Anyway, I haven’t actually read the research coming out of that research project, here’s the link to one by that researcher who was heading the project, you can look up other articles by her if you’re interested. (It looks from my brief glance at the abstracts that some of these articles claim a benefit for high-risk children, and some claim a detrimental effect on low-risk children but no detrimental effect on high-risk children.)
    http://www.gripinfo.ca/grip/public/www/doc/articles/Cote_2007_id_3707.pdf
    Also see Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51:12 (2010), pp 1359–1367; Developmental Psychology, 44 (2008), 155-168

    • says

      I see you’re procrastinating again :)

      Very interesting research. I do see that the vast majority was in home-based, smaller daycares and familial care which supports the idea that centres, at the very least, don’t seem to offer many benefits (and still seemed to be linked to lower quality care). However, the effects, even here, are quite small when you look at the betas in Table 3, especially the R2 change values (.3% added? – seems like a statistical significance due to large sample size).

      BUT it’s in line with similar findings by Belsky about the advantages of high-quality daycare on behavioural outcomes for kids at-risk (though in that work, being with family still had greater effects in a positive way). Very interesting stuff… thank you :)

  3. Jespren says

    I’m disapointed by your wrap you. Instead of sticking to your guns and saying we need to get kids our of centers and keep them at home with a parent, or if absolutely necessary a relative or dedicated nanny, you bow to the ‘well let’s just make day care better’. It’s clearly a lesser choice. If you have good A and bad B you don’t focus on making ‘B’ better, you tell people to pick A. When you say breastfeeding is good and formula feeding is inferior you don’t finish with ‘but people aren’t going to breastfeed so let’s make formula better’ you have, rightly, said ‘don’t use formula unless absolutely necessary’.
    I agree there are times, like a single mother with no family support, where daycare is the alternative to starvation from mom not working, but the vast majority of the time daycare is the alternative to mom not being a ‘fullfilled career women’ or ‘having my own life’ or ‘affording two cars and a bigger house’. At one time moms stayed home with their kids, it was just as much of a given as ‘mom births the baby’ as a portion of proper parenting. Families made it work, they lived on one income. There isn’t a reason why they can’t do so today except they got used to a type of living and don’t want to give that up for their kids. You do not need a 60 inch t.v., 1000 channels, internet, cell phones, laptops, home computer, 2 cars, a huge house, and a vacation every year. If you can afford it, or part of it, then good for you! But if you can afford it because you’re warehousing your kids because you’d rather have that then take care of your kids, shame on you.
    I know this makes me unpopular, but that a women ‘should’ be in the workforce as a matter of course rather than at home as a matter of course is one of the larger lies of feminism. The workforce doesn’t need you, your kids do.

    • says

      The thing is that I do feel that it’s a necessity for some women and, as Patricia points out, there are benefits to some children being in high-quality daycares (though I did say that was getting people into smaller home-based daycares which I think are quite close to relatives or dedicated nannies). Do you not find home-based daycares to be suitable? Here, a home-based daycare can only take a very small number of kids (depending on license, it’s usually 2-4) so they tend to be just like a nanny only kids from different families.

      Now, I completely agree about the many cases where families do it to have a higher standard of living in a monetary sense. But depending on where you live, that’s just not always the case. We’ve talked about Vancouver as an example – the cost of living is so high here and the pay is some of the lowest in the country. For many, many families, one income can’t survive here.

      But point very duly noted :) Thank you for the call-out :)

      Btw, I do think – after writing that, this is the topic where I see so much of A not being possible because of where I live that I went towards the idea of better B options. I think I was unable to separate my own experiences here with what is clearly best.

      • Jespren says

        Sorry it took me so long to respond, got backburnered…
        Down here states have different laws concerning registered home daycares, but anyone can be an ‘under-the-table’ home daycare. So for every registered home daycare that has under 5 kids (typical) there are two or three where mom hung a sign and cares for 10. My very first paid babysitting job was as a ‘mother’s helper’ for a at-home daycare that, being right next to the town’s nursing home, cared for most of the below school aged kids of the moms who worked at the nursing home. She charged a dollar an hour per kid (paid me 50 cents a hour to help, I was about 10) and had anywhere between 5 to 15 kids in her house at any one time. Usually by herself. It was a safe environment, she fed them, kept the fights to a minimum, and kicked them out of the house to play in the fenced yard whenever appropriate. I worked as a helper/tutor for another at-home daycare in high school. She had about 4 under school aged kids, then added another 4-6 early school aged kids after school got out. More recently there was an at-home daycare just down the street from where we recently lived. I’d see them outside playing on nice days. 2 grown-ups to about 20 kids below school age. I have a friend who cares for about 5 of her relatives in her at-home daycare. Would I pick an at-home daycare over a center? In a heartbeat, at least there the babe would be with the same caregiver every day, which is, realistically my primary objection to daycare. Centers have a horribly high rate of turnover, and I firmly believe young children need stability in their caregivers. I think history has more than shown that children raised by nannies can be just as secure and healthy as those raised by mom. Consistancy, logically, seems the main factor. Nannies or co-op nannies, where a couple of families share a nanny for their similiarly aged kids, as long as the nanny is long term seems like, outside of familial help, to be the next best option to parental or familial care. Any form of daycare seems a rather distant 4th. It is, however, being incouraged not just as a 2nd option, but in many areas or social groups as a primary option.
        As for saying it is a necessary option because in some places a family ‘just can’t get by’ on one income…do those places exclude single parents from the population? Because unless you can find me a town where every single family is a duel parent, duel income household we are simply talking about a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. Now some people may choose a lifestyle that requires two incomes to maintain, and that is their right as parents, but they should be honest about it being a choice, not a necessity. When you have a couple on A Ave saying they simply *can’t* live unless they both work and a single mom over on B Street making do with one income, guess what, that means couple on A street *could* have one parent stay home and care for the kids, if they wanted it. Heck, I’ve even known couples who set their work schedules up so they both worked and there was someone home 24-7 with the kids. (Not sure where sleep fit in for those peoples but it was important enough to them that their infant wasn’t in a daycare to sacrifice and make it work.) I fully admit that sometimes single parents simply have no choice. Daycares, as far as I’m concerned, should be a social net for single parents. That they are frequently and even primarily used by couples is, in my opinion, a horrible diservice to children.

        • says

          I totally agree with all of what you say with the caveat that it’s not just single parents in some areas. In Vancouver, the poverty line for a family of four is $39,000 a year which should be reasonable anywhere, but it’s not a salary many people have here and there’s a reason it’s still not high enough to put a family above the poverty line. Average rent for a 1 bedroom is nearly $1000/month here and utilities are expensive as most houses are horribly insulated. Public transportation is EXPENSIVE – it’s ridiculous. For a family of four to travel across the city a short distance is $10 per way, but if you have to go further (though still in Vancouver), it can be as high as $20 for a $40 round-trip venture. My hubby and I have realized that there are times it’s cheaper for us as a family to take a cab which just defeats the purpose of public transit in my opinion. So I do think we need good, but cheap, daycare as a net for the families that NEED it. And we need to work to ensure it’s high-quality daycare as these are children that will have lots of risk factors growing up and so we shouldn’t pile more on top of what’s already there.

          But yes, I would much prefer to see parents at home first, followed by grandparents or nannies or au-pairs, then home daycares, then daycares.

  4. awebs says

    I know this is an old post, but I am just reading it now as I’m trying to figure out what to do about daycare. (Love this blog so I was glad to see you had a post on the subject.) I just wanted to say that I agree with Tracy’s assertion that not all families can afford to live on one income. I have always wanted to be a stay at home mom. I still do. We live in an 850 sq ft condo. We have one ten year old car. We do not have cable. We do not go on vacations. We cannot afford for me to stay home with our son. I make twice as much as my husband does. We are trying to see if it is possible for him to stay home instead, but we are not sure if we can make that work either. I have a good friend who lives in a large house in a much nicer neighborhood and has 2 brand new cars. They take lavish overseas vacations annually. She can afford to be a stay at home mom. People can have vastly different incomes even if they live in the same region. It seems as though some posters here forgot about that. We have even tried to figure out if we could move to a cheaper city so one of us could stay home, but we are underwater on our mortgage due to the housing bust in the US so we cannot sell. (Ironically, we bought the condo in the first place thinking that housing prices kept shooting up and it was the best way to lock in a reasonable housing expense so that when kids came along, I could stay home. Fast forward 6 years and the housing prices are a fraction of what they were then and after suffering a year long layoff, my husband’s career is tanked. Oops.)

    However, as someone who is faced with this exact dilemma, my ideal solution would still be to find a way to make surviving on a single income more attainable for those who wish to do so rather than making good childcare more affordable. Alas, that is a much more complex problem to solve.

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