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Child Care Not Seen Hurting Bond With Mother

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Placing an infant in child care is not, in itself, likely to jeopardize the mother-child bond, concludes a groundbreaking new study on the effects of child care.

But poor quality or extensive time in child care combined with poor-quality mothering can raise the risk of an "insecure attachment" between child and mother, reports the study, which began tracking about 1,300 families in 1991.

"The results of this study clearly indicate that nonmaternal child care by itself does not constitute a threat to the security of the infant-mother attachment," says the report, which was presented late last month at the International Conference on Infant Studies in Providence, R.I. But "poor-quality, unstable, or more than minimal amounts of child care added to the risks already inherent in maternal insensitivity."

In a separate study released last week, the U.S. Bureau of the Census found that the use of organized child-care facilities is at an all-time high, accounting for 30 percent of all child-care settings. The bureau also reported that the proportion of preschoolers cared for by their fathers has fallen back to the levels reported before a significant increase between 1988 and 1991.

Family Factors

The study on the effects of child care--the most extensive of its kind--is financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a part of the National Institutes of Health. It involves investigators from the NICHD and researchers from 14 universities nationwide who have been following the children from birth through age 7.

Subsequent findings from the study are expected to shed more light on day care's effects on cognitive and social development and how the quality of care affects those factors. But the initial findings, which focused on the child's attachment to the mother at 15 months, are significant because experts have linked insecure attachments in infancy to developmental and social problems at older ages.

Previous, less comprehensive studies had shown that infants placed in child care--especially for 20 or more hours a week--were more likely to be insecurely attached to their mothers than those with stay-at-home mothers. Those studies had raised alarm in some quarters about the effects of child care on the growing number of infants whose mothers were entering the labor force. Today, 53 percent of all mothers with children younger than age 1 work outside the home.

The new study does not support those earlier findings. But it shows that the risk of insecure attachment increases when children whose mothers are not sensitive to their children's needs are placed in settings of poor quality, spend more than 10 hours a week in child care, or experience frequent shifts in providers.

The study also suggests that the amount of time spent in day care affects boys and girls differently. More than 30 hours a week, for example, was associated with greater insecurity for boys but greater security for girls.

But the study confirms that a mother's sensitivity is the best predictor of attachment, some of the researchers said.

"The way the mother behaves with the baby is still the most important factor in the quality of the relationship," said Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The findings are based on a technique in which researchers monitor the reactions of infants when their mothers leave them for a few minutes, then return. Although earlier studies used the same technique, this study is more reliable, the researchers said, because it examined a much larger, more diverse set of families and factored in the effects of family influences.

"We were looking at not only the effects of child care but the effects over and above the effects of the family," said Sarah Friedman, the coordinator of the study for the NICHD. "Other studies couldn't tease that out."

The study looked at children in child-care centers and family-day-care homes, as well as those cared for by a father, grandparent, or other adult at the child's home. It also brought together scholars who have differed in their interpretations of past research.

Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, published a 1986 paper documenting the earlier findings on insecure attachment.

He said last week that the new findings are not inconsistent with earlier data showing extensive time in child care can have detrimental effects. "I never presumed all children were going to be adversely affected," he said. "This refines and clarifies the conditions under which my earlier observations hold and don't hold."

Census Findings

The separate Census Bureau report showed that of the 9.9 million preschoolers whose mothers worked in 1993, 30 percent were in organized child-care centers--up from 23 percent in 1991.

The percentage cared for by relatives fell from 53 percent to 48 percent.

The proportion of preschoolers cared for by fathers, which had increased from 16 percent to 20 percent between 1988 and 1991, fell back to 16 percent in 1993.

While some saw the increase in the late '80s and early '90s as a sign that fathers were becoming more willing to take on primary roles in child-rearing, experts said it was more likely a result of the economic downturn and higher unemployment at that time.

"I think people wanted it to be more than that because of the push to get fathers more involved and supportive in caring for their children," said Lynne M. Casper, the Census Bureau demographer who wrote the report.

The drop-off in father-provided child care "doesn't mean that fathers are any less caring parents," she said, but that they still consider an important aspect of their role "providing money for the household."

For More Information:

Copies of a paper on the study presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies, "Infant Child Care and Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care," are available free from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, (301) 496-5133. Copies of the Census Bureau report, "Who's Minding Our Preschoolers?" are available for $1 by calling (301) 457-2422.

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