Day Care: Less and Later Is Better, But Family Matters Most

Day care quality and quantity affect kids, but home environment is more crucial.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Minnie Zhou/Unsplash
Source: Minnie Zhou/Unsplash

Day care continues to be emotionally fraught for parents. There are many conflicting opinions on what’s best, but not a lot of good research parents can use to help make the decision.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development conducted the largest and most comprehensive study of day care ever, the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD Study). It began in 1991 with over 1,000 infants from diverse family situations and locations throughout the United States. The research team considered health, behavior, and cognitive outcomes as it followed those children over the subsequent 15 years. 

Jay Belsky was one of the principal investigators on the NICHD Study. In The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life, Belsky and his colleagues describe the study and their findings in some detail.

Highly trained observers began by spending several hours observing each child’s day care experience. The observers focused on the extent to which caregivers interacted with the child in an attentive, sensitive, responsive, stimulating, and affectionate manner. This careful analysis was repeated twice at each of five different ages, when the child was 6 months, 15 months, 2 years, 3 years, and 4 and a half years old. These intensive observations were repeated when the child went to school, in grades one, three, and five. In addition, each child’s family was carefully studied at each observation period, through questionnaires, interviews, and videotaped interactions between a parent and the child. In addition to this exceptionally labor-intensive data collection process, multiple aspects of each child’s development were repeatedly assessed at regular periods until the child was fifteen: cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral.

The breadth, depth, and longitudinal nature of this approach allowed the researchers to assess the impact of day care in more complexity than has been done in any other study. As with the other findings reported in The Origins of You, Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt, and Richie Poulton considered alternative hypotheses, and checked their own personal biases. Think of them as weather reporters: you don’t think the weather person has a cold-weather storm bias when they forecast snow. Similarly, these findings reflect the data, not the personal biases of the researchers:

  1. Better quality care led to better cognitive outcomes. Higher-quality day care (where caregivers interacted with the child in an attentive, sensitive, responsive, stimulating, and affectionate manner), led to higher scores on cognitive and linguistic tasks. This advantage persisted into adolescence.
  2. Higher quality care leads to better social functioning in adolescence. Children who participated in lower-quality day care were more likely to show aggressive and delinquent behavior in adolescence.
  3. More time in early child care (before age 3) is associated with less sensitive mothering. Detailed analyses of mothers interacting with their child showed that the more time an infant or young child spent in day care, the less sensitive the mother’s response to the child, in a series of observed interactions in different situations.
  4. The more hours a child spent in day care, the worse their behavior. The more time spent in care in the first four and a half years of life, the more aggressive and disobedient the child was likely to be, no matter how high the quality of the environment. As the average hours of childcare per week increased from 0-9 (the first category), to 10-29, to 30-45, to more than 45, so did the likelihood the child would score in the at-risk range. This problem persisted into the school years.
  5. The more hours in care, the greater the adolescent risk-taking and impulsivity. Children who spent more hours per week in day care until the age of 4 and a half were more likely to engage in sex, drugs, and other risky activities, as well as more likely to act without thinking, once they moved into their teen years.
  6. Smaller groups were better than larger groups. Children whose child care experiences involved fewer other children did better over time than those whose child care was spent in larger groups.
  7. Family matters a lot more than quality or quantity of day care. The researchers found that the effects of both quality and quantity of care were surprisingly small. In predicting child and adolescent outcomes, a warm, loving, supportive family made a much bigger difference than the amount or quality of early child care experiences.  

Overall, the NICHD Study findings showed that quality and quantity of day care have implications for subsequent development, and that quantity matters more than quality, but that what matters most in a child’s life is not the amount or kind of care they receive, but rather the nature of what’s happening at home. Children who experience warmth, responsiveness, and the right kinds of stimulation at home do better, independently of quality and quantity of day care.

For more on this, read Noam Shpancer's post The Deal with Daycare: What Do the Data Denote?

This is part of my blog series based on The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life, by Jay Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie Moffitt, and Richie Poulton. See also, in this series,