The long-term effects of day care

ResearchBlogging.orgi-15e6885459dba667a7c30d0e05f7e5fa-belsky1.jpgWhen we were getting ready to have our first child, I decided that I would quit my job, work out of home as a freelancer, and take care of our baby while Greta finished graduate school.

That worked well for about two years, but by the time Nora was born, we decided to hire a part-time nanny so I could finish a degree of my own. When Nora was one and Greta and I were starting new jobs in a new state, both kids entered full-time day care, and that was our child-care arrangement until they started kindergarten.

Naturally, at every step along the way, we wondered whether we were making the right parenting decisions. We liked their nanny and their day-care center, but wouldn't it be better for the kids to be cared for full-time by their own parents? At that time, there wasn't a whole lot of research pointing one way or another. The definitive child-care study can probably never be done: Families would have to be randomly assigned to day-care centers or parent care for years, and then the impact of the assignments wouldn't be known until the children reached adulthood. Even then, you wouldn't know if the effects were due to particular parenting or day-care practices, or to the day-care versus parent-care assignment.

Realistically, the next best thing you can do is to follow children from birth to adulthood, and see if kids who happened to have been placed in day care (or with nannies, or grandparents, or some other arrangement) ended up better- or worse-off than those cared for by their mothers. Indeed, such a study was launched by the National Institute of Child Health and Development in the early 1990s. The results have been gradually trickling in as the children in the study aged. The most recent installment, published in 2007, covers kids through the sixth grade.

The study follows over 1,000 children who were randomly selected on their day of birth from ten U.S. hospitals. Researchers checked in intermittently with the families over the next dozen years, assessing both their family situation and the child care provided. Then when the kids entered school, they tracked their progress, got teacher reports on their social behavior, and continued to monitor the quality of their parenting (in addition to whether the kids were in after-school care programs).

A particularly interesting part of the study was the way parenting quality was measured. Every two years, age-appropriate tasks were assigned to the mother-child pairs: working through an Etch-a-Sketch maze, planning an itinerary, and even designing a bungee-jump for an egg, with the goal of stopping it 2 inches or less from a table top. The activities were videotaped and carefully coded for effective parenting skills.

So did time spent in day-care affect school performance? We can't say for sure: remember, this study just measures correlations, and a correlation can't tell us if one factor causes another. But there are some interesting correlations. There is a small, but significant correlation between quality of care received in a child-care center and vocabulary scores. Interestingly, this correlation continues to be significant all the way through the fifth grade. There's also a significant correlation between number of hours spent in child care and "externalizing" behaviors such as misbehaving in school or hitting others, but this diminishes with age. Externalizing is significantly correlated with the proportion of child care provided by day-care centers, and this correlation does extend all the way through to the sixth grade.

But the factor that most strongly predicted both academic success and good social skills throughout the study period was quality of parenting. If the mother-child relationship in those short video assignments demonstrated good parenting skills, then the child was more likely to have good reading, math, and vocabulary scores and have healthier social skills. But even here, we must be careful not to assign parenting as the cause: It's possible that parents simply get along better with kids who are naturally brighter and friendlier.

But let's suppose the correlations are due to causation: good parenting makes good kids, and day-care makes for very slightly smarter, but also slightly less well-behaved kids. What does that tell us about whether or not to put kids in day care? On an individual basis, not much. A parent may be faced with a decision to put her child in day care or move to a cheaper house in a worse neighborhood. A small probability that the child will be slightly more aggressive in ten years probably doesn't play into it much. But, the study authors suggest, it might make a difference on a larger, community-based scale. If ever-larger numbers of kids are placed in ever-more-inadequate day-care facilities, then schools and playgrounds could be adversely affected, which could mean a worse future for everyone.

One thing does seem clear from these results: both high-quality child-care centers and good parenting skills are associated with better results for kids. Perhaps future studies should focus more on how to make both of those things even better.

Belsky, J., Vandell, D., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K., McCartney, K., & Owen, M. (2007). Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care? Child Development, 78 (2), 681-701 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01021.x

More like this

Physics Buzz: Best physics inventions of 2009 "TIME magazine has announced the 50 best inventions of 2009. NASA's Ares family of rockets was a shoo-in for best invention, given the recent launch of Ares 1-X, the family's test rocket. I'll give them that; NASA could certainly use the cheerleading.…
The kids and conferences issue, discussed here a while ago has continued to spark discussion, with a Tenure She Wrote piece on how to increase gender diversity among conference speakers and a Physics Focus blog post on a mother who wound up taking her toddler to a meeting. There are some good…
It’s not surprising that food insecurity has a negative health and academic impact on young children — numerous studies have come to that conclusion. However, a new study has begun to dig a little deeper into the topic, zeroing in on the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, when food…
Money is on my mind a lot this semester. First, there's the grant writing marathon. And then there's the personal budgetary shortfall. Without a second income, we run a several hundred dollar per month shortfall. I've trimmed the fat from the budget and we're eating through the small amount of…

So what behavior was rated as good parenting?

I am curious how the study controlled for genetic tendencies. With all the different factors (environmental and genetic) that contribute to behavior/intelligence/etc.. the controls on such a study would have to be incredibly detailed or contain rather wide error bars, how "small but significant" are we talking about here?

"if kids who happened to have been placed in day care (or with nannies, or grandparents, or some other arrangement) ended up better- or worse-off than those cared for by their mothers."

Instead of [day-care/nanny/grandparents] vs. mothers, should not make more sense to compare day-care vs. [nanny/grandparents/mothers]?

By Miguel Madeira (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

There's no reason to suggest that the only options are mommy care or day care. How about we rework the entire picture so all parents can play a substantial role in a child's daily life. They manage to do it in other civilized countries.

"There's also a significant correlation between number of hours spent in child care and "externalizing" behaviors such as misbehaving in school or hitting others"

Was this correlation similar for both sexes?

I mean, day-care implies a lot more social interaction and for boys social interaction is rough-and-tumble, which is just normal part of growing up. Signing that up as something negative is to me just confusion. Sometimes this tendency leads into abusing other children, which should not be tolerated of course, but it's to be expected.

Also, I'm more eager to attribute child's misbehavior in school to the way our schooling system works and not as such a negative thing in and of itself. It may sound shocking to someone, but I think some amount of misbehavior and aggression is a good thing.

By Jarno Virtanen (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

In Sweden most kids are in municipal daycare centres from age 15-20 months. My kids have thrived there. Being at home with a nanny would be lonely. And the many relationships they've forged with other kids and their parents around the area are proving invaluable for their social embeddedness throughout the school years.

"A parent may be faced with a decision to put her child in day care or move to a cheaper house in a worse neighborhood."

Why do these studies always frame this as a decision or a choice, where the consequence is merely less comfort?

Many women work because they must; because the father is absent, or doesn't/can't/won't work consistently. Then, it is not a choice of a cheaper house, but of no house at all.

By June Blender (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

Hi Dave
Fascinating, thank you.
I've read your blog for a while now but not commented before - I always felt a little unqualified to.
But today, I must say something to the others commenting - cut the man some slack!
How on earth is anybody going to cover every aspect of a complex issue in a blog?
It appears that no matter how many caveats are included somebody whines on about an irrelevance. 'Why do these studies always frame this as a decision or a choice, where the consequence is merely less comfort?' is a case in point. June - your generalisation undermines your left-wing pedantry. And, it doesn't matter.
Miguel - great point, when you've studied it and written about it, please share it with us.

There is no substitute for quality attachment to a parental figure, whether to the biological parent or a loving caretaker. The problem presented is complicated because the impact of early caretaking may not be immediately seen and will always be filtered through each child's innate sensitivity to safety, security and non-threatening interactions. Since four year olds have limited ability to provide feedback, parents who seek outside caretakers have only their own instincts to rely upon when trying to identify a positive setting for their little one. Unfortunately, that's only half of what they would like to know before making a childcare selection.

In your being a parent to your children, it doesnât make you their master to be feared. You only have to be their guides as they trod along their own lifeâs path. At this stage of their lives, it would be helpful if you donât give them someone whoâs judgmental, but rather, a person whom they could rely on for advices and encouragement.

"Many women work because they must; because the father is absent, or doesn't/can't/won't work consistently. Then, it is not a choice of a cheaper house, but of no house at all."

I take offense to this statement. Myself, and most of the other mothers at the daycare where I take my children, work in white collar jobs that are very rewarding. Just as many fathers as mothers are dropping off their children in the mornings. Do you really think that mothers work only when they choose to have babies with deadbeats?

The problem is, "quality" child cares are in the minority and only available to parents who can pay. The further down the economic ladder you fall, the worse your options are until you are working minimum wage while a string of crackhead friends watches your kids. Also, did this look at how many daycares children went through? There's a lot of variables and I will continue to believe that being a parent is a career choice that should only be made when you are in the place to devote the majority of your time to it.

If i remember correctly, the effect sizes for the significant correlations were very small. Given the large sample size (even after they've accounted for missing data, i think they had about 200+), significant results need to be carefully interpreted.

By Marcus C. (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

Both my children were in day care from 6 months to 5 years old. It was difficult to find quality care when we moved but the centers we chose were there for decades. Graduates were now sending their own kids there. That made a huge difference over pop-up or home-based centers. I always felt like I was handing my kids over to the child-care experts every day. They loved my kids and cried when they left. They probably did a much better job of teaching kids basic social skills than I ever could have done at home. Yeah, sure, there were boo-boos and illnesses and days of crying but, life is tough. They shouldn't be sheltered at home. (I've seen many kids have a problem adjusting to school life when they have to venture out every day on their own.)

Plus, the kids would have hated me as a stay-at-home Mom. I would have gone crazy.

Interesting overview article, although I believe that a there has been a great deal written about externalizing behavior in association with child care over the past few years, particularly aggression. Unfortunately, it seems that the parents who are most likely to utilize day care for their children are the least likely to have the time and energy to develop consistent parenting skills and how much this plays into the issue is a problem for consideration as well.

By C. Patton (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

sharon, I love the honesty of your response.

I don't have any kids myself, but was of course interested in the plans my brother and sister-in-law made for my nephew. At first he was watched by a wonderful loving family friend, but he just wasn't learning to talk, even at an age where it started to get concerning. Finally they put him in daycare 3 mornings a week. Within 2 weeks he started talking. So in his case, increased socialization was clearly a benefit.

Ellen- I can see why you'd be upset, but I do not think the actual statement as written implied anything negative about people who use daycare.
The point was, while it's lovely to research the effects of day care, by setting up the study as Mommy-at-home Vs. Day Care, they are ignoring the fact that the data they produce will not be valuable to many people who do not have the Mommy-at-home option.
If you do have the choice, the research at least supports the notion that you will not be Dooming Your Children whether you stay home or not. But the ability to make that choice is a privilege, in many senses. The DEFAULT for both men and women is that you have to work to eat. If you are not in a such a situation, that's great, but don't go looking down your nose at everyone else as making poor judgments and associating with deadbeats.

uk visa- don't feel unqualified to make comments; there's no Rule of Blogs that every comment has to be useful.

In this discussion no one mentions a term behavioral geneticist use: trait driven experience. This term is often used to describe how a person's genetic endowment (James Flynn uses this word) affects his or her environment. In this case parents with higher intellectual endowment and better parenting skills were probably subtlety affecting the their more highly endowed children's environment by finding better day care facilities. It is also been shown over and over again that adults treat children differently based on children's natural abilities and behaviors (this is how trait driven experience seems to work).

Not controlling for such factors,it seems to me, makes studies such as this less useful than they would be otherwise. Given this and the small effects found in this study, I find it hard to put any weight on the idea that the "associations" say much about parenting or the effects of daycare.