Nonparental Daycare: What The Research Tells Us

Daycare research allays old concerns and raises new ones.

Posted Oct 05, 2017

Nonparental childcare is normative in the US. This year, over 60 percent of U.S. children under age five will spend some time in nonparental care. Viewed in a broad socio-political context, contemporary daycare purports to serve two main purposes: Helping children develop and helping parents work. These purposes, while laudable, are often at odds. For example, receiving high quality daycare is important to children. However, higher quality costs more money, and the economic calculus for working parents requires that daycare costs be kept low.

Moreover, while nonparental care is the statistical norm in the U.S., it’s far from being considered the societal ideal. Women, who still do most childcare work in the U.S., face a particularly complex social climate in which stay-at-home mothers are often viewed as professionally unfulfilled, but working mothers are perceived as less loving and dedicated to their children. Moreover, much like marriage, daycare is a social institution, and it changes along with society. As social dynamics, definitions, and aspirations shift, the reality of daycare, its correlates, and its consequences are likely to likewise shift, rendering old wisdom moot and new wisdom temporary.

Finally, various stakeholders involved in the issue are likely to frame findings in ways that fit their personal, cultural, and/or political agendas. Thus, deriving consensus conclusions and recommendations, or even coherent narratives, from existing research has been, and will remain, challenging. Still, a consensus of sorts has emerged from the scientific literature regarding several important characteristics of the link between daycare and children’s development.

The Importance of Home and Family

Perhaps the most widely held and least controversial consensus in the data is that, by and large, the influence of the home and family trumps that of nonparental care arrangements, even for children who spend extensive amounts of time in nonparental care. Important home environment predictors of development are parents’ education, family income and structure, mothers’ psychological adjustment and sensitivity, and the social and cognitive quality of the home environment.

The Importance of Daycare Quality

Consensus has crystallized around the importance of care quality for child development. In studying daycare quality, research has focused on two domains of interest—structure and process. Structural variables include those environmental conditions of the child care milieu that are more amenable to regulation, such as caregiver-child ratio, group size, noise level, and caregiver education. Process variables include caregiver-child interaction dimensions, such as caregiver sensitivity, responsiveness, and warmth, which are less responsive to regulation.

Research has consistently documented links between both structural and process characteristics of child care quality and improved developmental outcomes for children, and some of these benefits appear to sustain into later childhood and adolescence. Generally, children in formal center-based programs receive higher quality care than those enrolled in informal home-based care. 

Yet it should be noted that the links between care quality and child outcome are statistically modest, correlational rather than causal in nature, and more pronounced for children from impoverished backgrounds who experience high (rather than average or low) care quality.

Daycare and Parent-Child Attachment

Much of the research into the developmental effects of daycare on socioemotional development has focused on the potential risk posed by early nonparental care for parent-child attachment. Available data indicate that, for most children, parental attachment processes are not disrupted by daycare participation. Home variables, such as maternal sensitivity, are the strongest predictors of parent-child attachment, even for daycare children. Moreover, research indicates that children can create secure attachment relations with their daycare providers. In fact, for some children, secure attachment with caregivers in daycare may compensate for the adverse effects of insecure parent-child relations. However, among very young children (i.e., under 2-years-old), less sensitive and attentive parenting coupled with 30 or more hours per week in low-quality nonparental care is associated with moderate elevations in risk for later developmental difficulties in peer relations, compliance, and attachment.

Daycare and Children’s Externalizing Behavior

Another central focus of research on the socio-emotional development of daycare children involves children’s behavior. In particular, externalizing behavior, which is characterized by emotional under-control, rule-breaking, irritability, belligerence, and negative interactions. Extensive daycare experience has been consistently associated with elevated externalizing problems among children in the U.S., although the effect is small in size and does not extend into clinical-level behavioral problems.

Daycare and Children’s Cognitive and Language Development

Overall, high-quality daycare focusing on structured educational activities has been linked to improved cognitive and language development. These gains are particularly noticeable for at-risk and poor children. It should be noted, however, that high-quality care is not the current norm in the US. Most daycare children receive poor-to-average quality of care and are therefore unlikely to reap these potential benefits.

Daycare and Children’s Physical Health

In recent years, research has expanded to explore the link between daycare attendance and childhood illnesses. A fairly robust link has been found between attendance in daycare with six or more other children and increased likelihood of communicable illnesses, ear infections, and the flu. However, long-term adverse health effects have not yet been documented.

Emerging interest in the daycare literature centers on relations with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system, which produces cortisol, a hormone related to stress response and adaptation. Animal research has demonstrated that chronic elevations of cortisol can deleteriously affect regulatory brain processes. Research has documented elevated cortisol levels in daycare children compared to those who are raised at home. However, specific links between daycare-induced cortisol elevation and developmental outcomes have not been established, and recent research suggests that cortisol response in daycare may be linked to children’s home environment. Further evidence indicates that some children may be buffered against the elevated cortisol effect by child characteristics, quality of care, and mother-child attachment.

SUMMARY

Nonparental child care can no longer be seen as a merely custodial enterprise, a women’s issue, or a passing trend. Rather, nonparental child care is a fundamental social responsibility, a major cultural institution, and an important economic and educational concern in the lives of most U.S. families. Thus, whatever evidence is gathered about it is best used to improve rather than eliminate it. 

We now know that nonparental care does not constitute an inherent risk for children’s development (just as parental care does not guarantee child flourishing). Children who receive nonparental care are not inherently different in their developmental trajectories than children who are exclusively raised at home. To the extent that nonparental child care carries developmental risks (and benefits), they emerge from complex interactions among child, home, and daycare features, as embedded within the socio-cultural characteristics of the children’s environment.

The daycare experience may present both challenges and opportunities for children (and their parents). On the whole, daycare research has confirmed that child development is an elaborate dance involving many variables that interact in complicated ways. One size does not fit all. At the societal level, both parents and children (and by proxy, society) will benefit from continued conversation about childcare, informed by facts and research findings. Currently in the U.S., where economic pressures often necessitate that both parents work full time, and where high-quality nonparental care is not readily available, parents face limited choices. More often than not, the decision whether and where to place a child in daycare is dictated not by familial values and wishes but by socio-economic circumstances. If we find a way to support high-quality care and make it financially viable for parents to choose to stay home, we may create true freedom of choice as well as better developmental environments for children.

To that end, it may also strike one as telling that in the U.S., which is ostensibly committed to its future generations and which purports to cherish family values, child care workers earn on average less than nonfarm animal caretakers and car attendants. A national conversation about daycare that is attuned to this reality and its implications is bound to benefit daycare researchers, caregivers, and, most importantly, children and their families.

(A longer version of this article appears in the Encyclopedia of Mental Health. 2016; 202-207