Child Daycare: A Challenge to Which We Have Yet to Rise

Question: Is daycare good or bad? Answer: it’s complicated.

Posted Jun 07, 2019

A majority of U.S. children will spend time in some form of nonparental care before age five. While nonparental childcare is, statistically speaking, a current cultural norm, it has not quite eclipsed stay-at-home parental care as a cultural ideal. Therefore, while most mothers with infants are in the labor force, working American mothers still contend often with ambivalence, guilt, and social attitudes that may characterize them as less warm and committed than stay-at-home mothers.

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As nonparental childcare has grown, child development researchers have become increasingly invested in learning about the implications of this form of care for children, their parents, and society at large. Early daycare research focused mostly on comparing home-reared and daycare children, looking to address fears that nonparental care might harm young children by disrupting their attachment relationships with their parents, undermining parental influence, or stunting their emotional and intellectual development. Early researchers were also interested in whether professional child caregivers could develop deep, nurturing bonds with the children in their care to provide them with quality interpersonal experiences necessary for healthy development.

In recent decades, with accumulating evidence showing that the “home-reared” and “daycare-reared” labels were not in themselves predictive of developmental outcome, research has begun to focus on mapping how child and parent characteristics, environmental conditions, and the cultural milieu interact to produce developmental outcomes in children across care arrangements. We understand today that child development occurs—and should be understood and studied—in a multidimensional context, where both proximal (e.g., the home and daycare environments) and distal (e.g., governmental childcare policies; parental work stress) conditions interact to shape developmental trajectories.

Daycare Research: Methodological Difficulties

Daycare research is not easy to conduct or interpret. True experimentation is not usually feasible due to ethical constraints (researchers cannot force a group of parents, chosen at random, to care for their children in a particular way). In the absence of true experimentation, cause and effect relationships are difficult to discern.

In addition, genetic and environmental influences on child development are often correlated, which makes the task of teasing them apart challenging. For example, highly anxious parents may transmit the genetic makeup for anxiety to their child and also practice an overprotective caregiving style. Moreover, different individual children select different environmental niches based on their genetic temperamental tendencies. A temperamentally active child will not likely choose to spend time in the library. His poorer academic performance may correlate with low library attendance, but his genetic makeup may be the cause for both his low attendance and his poor academics.

To complicate matters still, recent studies have suggested that children are differently predisposed (genetically) to being influenced by their environment, including the daycare environment. Some children are thus more prone to suffer adverse effects in daycare because their genetic endowment renders them more reactive to environmental stress. Such genetic individual differences may explain some of the inconsistency of findings in research on children’s adjustment in daycare.

Finally, the results of daycare research are often open to competing interpretations, some of which may be guided by sociopolitical considerations far removed from—and at times hostile to—the jurisdiction of science. For example, if maternal employment is ultimately found to place some infants at higher developmental risk, how much child risk is our society willing to accept in the name of protecting mothers’ right to pursue financial independence and professional fulfillment (both of which may confer benefits on their children later on in development)? No surprise, then, that daycare research has been at times both a contentious and a maddeningly inconsistent field of inquiry.

Daycare Research: Consensus Findings

Still, the literature has converged onto several consensus conclusions. First, an emerging consensus in the literature is that daycare attendance does not inherently disrupt optimal child development and parent-child attachment relationships. Second, family variables are, by and large, more predictive of child development than daycare variables, even for children who spend significant time in daycare. Third, caregivers can indeed develop close, secure attachments with the children in their care. Fourth, children benefit most in high-quality daycare settings, which include warm and engaged caregivers; a safe and stimulating environment; and structured educational activities.

Daycare: Lingering Concerns

At the same time, concerns and challenges remain for daycare children (and their parents). First, research has shown quite consistently that under some circumstances, particularly maternal insensitivity and low-quality daycare, extensive nonparental care in infancy predicts higher risk of disrupted mother-child attachment. Another cause for concern has been the persistent suggestion from the research that children who spend much time in daycare exhibit more externalizing (noncompliance) problems, particularly if they spend many hours in low-quality care and in large groups of peers. These increases, it should be noted, tend to be mild, and they do not replicate well in non-US samples and when more rigorous designs are used.

Daycare children, particularly younger ones, also experience a rise in respiratory tract and other infections, mostly upon entry to daycare. Research has also found elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children attending daycare. Higher cortisol is of interest in part because of its association with poorer executive function in children. The long-term developmental implications of this finding are not yet clear, but research has suggested that multiple factors, such as daycare quality, caregiver competence, parent-child attachment, and parental social support may moderate this pattern.

Another point of concern emerging from the research is that while parents by and large report satisfaction with their daycare arrangements, most daycare programs in the U.S. today do not meet criteria for high quality. The mediocrity of daycare quality in the U.S. is troubling particularly in light of accumulating evidence showing that developmental gains for daycare children occur almost exclusively in high-quality settings.

Alongside persistent concerns about quality, another fundamental concern regarding the daycare system in the U.S. is affordability. Daycare in the U.S.—particularly formal, center-based high-quality care of the kind that is associated with developmental gains for children—is pricy, costing as much as $12,000 per year depending on the state. The average cost of infant daycare may be as high as $17,000 per year (the younger the child, the more expensive the care, in part because the caregiver-child ratio is smaller for younger children).

The average cost of keeping an infant in center-based care is higher than public college tuition in most states, and cost is the most commonly reported obstacle for families seeking childcare. Daycare costs have risen roughly 70 percent between 1985 and 2012. High-quality daycare is currently out of reach for many poor and even middle-income families. Families therefore often must rely on relative care or a patchwork of informal unregulated arrangements of middling quality.


Daycare for infants and young children is normative in the U.S. A majority of families with young children will at some point choose to use nonparental childcare services. Working parents need and want—and their children surely deserve—high-quality, accessible, and affordable daycare. Spending time in safe, stimulating, and stable environments with properly educated, caring, and fairly compensated daycare professionals will facilitate most children’s progress on the path to becoming well-adjusted and productive adults. Thus, high-quality daycare is a sound social investment, and the return on investment in the early years is greater than what we typically get for intervening in later years. Unfortunately, the current state of American daycare is far from optimal. Too many daycare facilities lack in quality. Too many families lack information about, and access to, high-quality daycare. Figuring out how to solve these problems is an urgent challenge to which our society has yet to rise.

A full version of this article appears in T.K. Shackelford, V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science (2018)


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