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  • The disconcerting effects of hours in day care are most likely to materialize when children enter day care for 20-30 hours per week in the first year of life and maintain that level of care until school. Tweet This
  • Early, extensive, and continuous non-parental care appeared to put children on a trajectory for social-emotional challenges, per a long-term study.  Tweet This
  • It's the cumulative effects of extensive hours in child care beginning early in life that pose a risk to emotional development, not short-term changes in the number of hours spent. Tweet This
Category: Child Care

Very few shared understandings span our gaping political divide. But surely this is one: the early years of a child’s life matter—for children, families, society and, of course, the future. However, the way this reality translates into decisions ranging from the personal to the political often exposes significant ideological and political divisions. That is why the science of early development is so important in guiding understanding about what children really need to thrive and how early environments shape their development—and the kind of society we are creating. With such a politically fraught issue, however, it can be difficult to even make certain what studies published in reputable journals reveal. 

That challenge was exposed in recent news about research making the case that, contrary to large-scale studies indicating otherwise, extensive hours in day care centers have no impact on children’s social-emotional development. According to the headlines, “Parents can breathe a sigh of relief…” and with all they worry about, “there is one thing they may not need to be concerned about: whether kids’ time spent in a child care center will lead to problem behavior.” Instead, parents should feel “encouraged and reassured” that in spite of what they may have heard, sensed, or believed, spending extensive hours in day care centers—even beginning in the first year of life—has nothing to do with children’s social-emotional experience and behaviors.

It was a startling conclusion given important evidence documenting otherwise. In fact, this new research study does little to settle the issue. The authors, from universities in the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands, drew on data from each of those countries to evaluate whether children’s problem behaviors increased in response to short-term surges in the number of hours they spent in day care. The results, published in the prestigious journal, Child Development, showed that more hours in a day care center did not predict a direct and immediate increase in behavioral problems. In other words, an increase in the number of hours a child spent in a day care center did not simultaneously predict an increase in their behavior problems. And so, the authors concluded, “we found no evidence that more time spent in center-based child care poses a risk for developing behavior problems in early childhood.” 

But in focusing only on short-term, simultaneous effects, the analyses actually ignored the real concern about child care—that it is the cumulative amount of time spent in day care across infancy, toddler, and preschool years that is associated with behavioral problems that may not even show up until children enter school. The disconcerting effects of hours in day care are most likely to materialize when children enter day care for 20 to 30 hours per week in the first year of life and maintain that level of care until they start school. Thus, it is the cumulative effects of extensive hours in child care beginning early in life that pose a risk to emotional development, not short-term changes in the number of hours spent in child care. 

This pattern was not clearly identified until the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD-SECC), which followed 1,300 children from birth to age 15, and then a smaller research team followed them into adulthood. The study was launched in the early 90s when research on the effects of day care on children had already become scattered, confusing, and controversial. Child care utilization had dramatically changed in the U.S. Children were no longer entering part-time or full-time arrangements at 4, 3, or even 2 years of age. They were entering child care early in the first year of life and continuing that care, often with many arrangement changes, until starting school. 

Skilled researchers designed the NICHD-SECC to be a longitudinal inquiry that would follow children as they grew up, while considering numerous potentially influential factors: the child’s characteristics, family, home life, when they entered child care and thereafter. Researchers also repeatedly assessed the children’s social-emotional and cognitive-linguistic development. 

It is the cumulative effects of extensive hours in child care beginning early in life that pose a risk to emotional development, not short-term changes in the number of hours spent in child care. 

Like all studies, the NICHD-SECC is not without some limits. But it remains the only such investigation to be positioned to statistically tease apart the potentially distinctive effects of quantity, quality, and type of child care, be it family-, center- or otherwise. Importantly, investigating the distinctive effects of each of these factors allowed the study to test the prevailing view that as long as the caregiving was sensitive, supportive and stimulating, the amount of time spent in child care would not matter. After all, “it’s the quality, stupid!” 

The earliest findings indicated that at 15 months of age, more time spent in any kind of child care was associated with an increased risk of insecure infant-mother attachment relationship for some children. By 24 months of age, more time in child care across the first 2 years predicted less social competence and cooperation, and more caregiver-reported behavior problems. By age 3, these negative effects seemed to disappear. One of us who was involved in the study acknowledged that the age-3 findings showing no negative effects were potentially important, but only if they continued as children developed. Unfortunately, they did not. 

Re-assessment just prior to school entry at age 4½ indicated that more hours per week in child care across the early years of life predicted lower social competence, higher externalizing problems, more adult-child conflict, and more negative peer play, even after controlling for maternal education, family income, child sex, infant temperament, ethnic group, and maternal depressive symptoms. Strikingly, these negative outcomes remained even after accounting for the quality of the child care—including how sensitive, supportive and cognitively stimulating it was. 

The negative outcomes associated with early and extensive hours in child care persisted into the assessments done in kindergarten, first, third and sixth grades, as well as during adolescence. By third grade, children who had experienced more cumulative hours of child care across their first 4.5 years of life were at increased risk for fewer social skills, poorer work habits, problem behaviors, and teacher conflict, especially if they had been in day care centers. By the sixth grade, quantity of time in day care centers continued to predict problem behaviors, even if teacher-child conflict, social skills, and work habits no longer proved to be associated with quantity of care. At age 15, more hours in a day care centers predicted significantly more problem behaviors, risk taking (including using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs), and impulsivity in participating in unsafe activities. And these findings, like the elementary-school-age results, additionally controlled for quality of schooling across middle childhood.

It would be a mistake to catastrophize these effects. Not all children who spent extensive hours in child care manifested negative effects, and for those who did, their levels of behavior problems did not raise the risk of true psychological disturbance. Nevertheless, where only 5% of children who averaged under 10 hours/week of child care during their first 54 months had elevated or at-risk problem scores, three times as many who averaged 30 or more hours per week did. 

Some argue that there must be an underlying factor that would explain why these children seemed to be at risk for behavioral challenges. In fact, evidence suggests that some children are genetically more susceptible to negative effects from early, extensive child care. Susceptibility is also shaped by a child’s family background. In the NICHD-SECC, children of more educated mothers were more likely to show negative behavioral outcomes from early, extensive and continuous child care than children from less educated mothers. One interpretation of the latter findings is that whereas low-income families often “trade up” in terms of developmental supportiveness when relying on child care, more advantaged families “trade down.” 

Further research exploring negative effects through age 26 revealed at least one developmental pathway through which negative effects persist: extensive hours in child care across the first 54 months of life predicted more problem behavior in middle childhood, which then in adolescence predicted more problem behavior, impulsivity and risk-taking; the latter, in turn, forecast  greater impulsivity, risk-taking, and contact with police in young adulthood! Early, extensive, and continuous non-parental care appeared to put children on a trajectory for social-emotional challenges. 

Obviously, some parents need to use day care, whereas others desire to do so. But all parents should be clearly informed about what has been discovered about the effects of child care in the United States. Too many readers of the popular press will miss the critical distinction between studies that examine the effects of short-term increases or decreases in time spent in child care on development, and research that treats child care in a more life-span perspective, focusing on “early, extensive and continuous care.” Failing to herald this important distinction risks being misleading—or worse. This is like accepting the claim that failure to consume any calcium in a week has no impact on bone density even though other evidence indicates that weeks, months, and years of such deprivation adversely affects bone health.

The well-being of our young children is fundamental, both to their life trajectories as well as to the overall success of our nation. That will demand clarity in understanding what early development science is really telling us about what children and their families need. Too many families feel economically coerced into relying on paid child care so that parents can earn a living. Giving families with young children more support, including economic support, might afford them the ability to more freely choose what they feel is best for their young children’s care. This is better than jumping to the empirically unsupported conclusion that all or even most parents want to put their children in child care arrangements beginning in the first year of life, and that such arrangements are without potential implications. 

Jenet Erickson is a Research Fellow of The Wheatley Institution and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.  Jay Belsky is the Robert M. And Natalie Reid Dorn Endowed Chair Professor at the University of California, Davis. He has studied the effects of day care, family influences on child development, and many related topics for the past four decades. Further information on him can be found here