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Child Development

Nanny vs. Day Care: The Impact of Child Care on Development

Does the type of child care you choose impact your child's development?

Key points

  • A large and comprehensive study of the impact of child care on child development found few differences between different types of child care.
  • Children in center-based care (i.e., day care) may show slightly enhanced academic, cognitive, and language development.
  • Children in center-based care may also have a higher risk for behavioral issues at some stages of development.

Choosing a child care arrangement for your baby or young child can be an extremely difficult choice for parents (if you are even fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make this choice). Many parents wonder which option is best for their child's development—a nanny or family member caring for their child or finding a high-quality child care center?

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development is the largest and most comprehensive study in the United States of the impact of child care on child development to date. This study, which included over 1,000 children, began in the early 1990s and followed these children up until the age of 18 years. This study examined the long-term impacts of different types of child care arrangements (including being cared for in the home by a nanny or relative, center-based care, or home-based care in the home of a child care provider).

The type of child care you choose may not impact your child as much as you think it might.
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

The researchers found little differences in development between children who were cared for by family members or a nanny in the home versus children who were cared for in group settings (center-based or home-based child care). However, researchers did find some differences between children in center-based care (i.e., day care) versus children in other child care arrangements. Specifically, children in center-based child care from 6 months of age and older showed improved cognitive and language development at age 3, enhanced academic skills at age 4 ½ , and fewer behavioral problems at age 2 and 3 than children who were not in center-based care. Children in center-based care also showed more cooperation at age 2 and fewer behavior problems at ages 2 and 3. However, this study also found that children in center-based care may show more behavioral problems at age 4 ½ years than children not in center-based care.

Children in center-based care were also more likely to acquire ear infections, respiratory infections, and stomach bugs than children cared for in their own home (particularly when the center had six or more children). However, children in larger group care from age 2 to 3 were less likely to contract respiratory or stomach illnesses between age 3 to 4 ½, suggesting that large group care may ultimately boost a child’s immune system.

In summary, center-based care (day care) is associated with both positive and negative impacts, yet these impacts are relatively minor. Parent and family factors (such as parent education, the home environment, and the quality of the parent-child interaction) have a much greater impact on child development than the type of child care you choose. In fact, the NICHD study found that parent and family factors may have a two to three times greater impact on child development than child care. Accordingly, parents should choose the type of child care that works best for their family and their individual child.

More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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