What to do about childcare is one of the most contentious and stressful issues for parents. There’s lots of research on this topic, but the findings are all over the place, and it’s no wonder many parents feel confused as they consider their options.
A quick recap of the research to date: For the first three years, infants and toddlers do best in home-based settings. They tend to experience less stress, less illness, and fewer behavioural problems. Home care is not always possible, and it’s not always best—a high-quality daycare is usually better than an impatient parent or a disinterested nanny. And if you decide on daycare for the first three years, less is better than more—little kids do better with fewer than thirty hours of nonparental childcare a week. On the other hand, after the age of three, a good preschool has a lot of benefits.
The most comprehensive longitudinal study to date was done by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). An effort to explore how quality, quantity, and type of child-care settings affect children’s long-term development, this study began in 1991 with over a thousand infants from diverse family situations and locations throughout the United States, and considered health, behavior, and cognitive outcomes as it followed those children over the subsequent 15 years.
Overall, the NICHD findings showed that what matters most is not the kind of care a child receives—whether nanny, parent, daycare, preschool, or other—but rather the nature of their home experience. No matter the form of early childhood care, optimal outcomes are experienced by children who experience warmth, responsiveness, and the right kinds of stimulation at home. The findings are more nuanced than that, of course. Quality of the setting, time in non-parental care, and the child’s age all do make a difference.
As might be expected, a child’s language, cognitive, and social development outcomes are all better in high-quality care settings, where there is a high ratio of well-trained adults. Statistically speaking, children who spend more than 30 hours a week in non-maternal care in their first four and a half years of life have more behavior problems (aggression and lack of co-operation), as well as more minor illnesses (upper respiratory and stomach), than those with fewer hours in care. Finally, the impact of the type of child-care setting varies by age. By and large, children younger than three experience less stress when they are being cared for at home. Recent studies show that after that, preschools are more likely to provide the high-quality environment and well-trained staff that lead to the best outcomes over time.
An overview of current findings shows that it’s not so much the form that early care takes as its quality. Young children do better when their caregivers are responsive, warm, and sensitive; when there is a high ratio of caregivers; and when they’re surrounded with rich language use.
On balance then, the research findings show:
- Family matters most. What matters most to a child’s development is that their parents be warm, responsive, and engaged positively with them, providing a family environment that is safe, stable, and stimulating.
- Each family’s solution is unique to that family. The research supports parents in creating their own best approach to childcare, understanding that what’s best depends on each child’s personality and needs, as well as the parents' and the family’s.
- High quality makes a difference. Look for well-trained caregivers who are warm and responsive, and settings that provide high adult-to-child ratios, in a good balance of stimulation and calm. Quality makes a difference to social, cognitive, health, and emotional outcomes.
- Up to the age of three, home is best. Little kids do best—less stress, fewer behavioural problems, better health—if they’re cared for at home, and a parent can be home with them a lot of the time.
- After three, preschool has many benefits. Children older than three can benefit from attending good preschools or junior kindergartens.
For more on this topic:
In Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, Joanne Foster and I discuss these research conclusions on pages 62-64. We discuss childcare options in the broader context of good parenting practices, observing (as here) that what matters most is that children feel loved, valued, and listened to by their parents.
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development
“Within- and Between-Sector Quality Differences in Early Childhood Education and Care,” by Daphna Bassok,, Maria Fitzpatrick, Erica Greenberg, and Susanna Loeb