Early Childhood

Most Child Care ‘Adequate,’ Latest Findings in Study Say

By Linda Jacobson — February 03, 1999 5 min read

The latest findings from an ongoing federal study of child care don’t necessarily provide the public with a lot of new information.

At best, the new research shows, most child care in the United States can still be described as only adequate. But the study does give parents and providers a richer picture of how time spent in care--either organized or informal--affects children.

“This is really the biggest study of development and early experiences that exists,” said Margaret T. Owen, one of the researchers and an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, began the project in 1991. It involves 29 researchers tracking more than 1,300 children from infancy in nine states.

Study Highlights

Findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s child-care study include:

  • The average quality of care for 1- to 3-year-olds in the United States is adequate, with 8 percent of child-care arrangements being poor, 53 percent fair, 30 percent good, and 9 percent excellent.
  • More hours in care and care that is of poor quality have some negative effects on the mother-child relationship, but the effects are small and ultimately do not disrupt a child’s ability to form an attachment to his or her mother.
  • Children with more experience in group care have fewer positive interactions with peers at age 2, but they have more positive interactions with peers at age 3.
  • At age 2, children in the care of their mothers used fewer words and less complex sentences in comparison with children in high-quality child care outside the home. At age 3, children cared for by their mothers did better on language comprehension than children in poor-quality child care.


Research papers from the “Study of Early Child Care’’ are available from the NICHD’s Public Information and Communications Branch, Building 31, 2A32, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2425, Bethesda, MD 20892-2425.

Earlier findings in the NICHD study have shown that day care alone does not harm a child’s intellectual development and that the quality of care has far more effect on a child than the number of hours spent in day care. (“Intellectual Development Linked to Quality of Day Care,” April 16, 1997.)

Unlike some other studies, this one doesn’t isolate a single type of care, such as centers or family child care. Instead, it looks at the wide variety of child-care arrangements that parents use.

For that reason, the nichd research sheds a somewhat more positive light on the state of care when compared with another study that has served as a national benchmark.

Released in 1995, “Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers,” which was conducted by researchers at four universities, concluded that about 12 percent of children were receiving poor care, while 70 percent were in settings that were described as “mediocre.”

The NICHD study estimates that 8 percent of care is poor, while 53 percent is “fair.”

But while the average child-care environment is probably safe for children, parents should still not be satisfied, said Alison Clarke-Stewart, one of the researchers for the federal study and a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

“We know how to do it better,” she said.

Indeed, the researchers’ recommendations for how to raise quality are no surprise to those familiar with past child-care studies. Child care could be improved by “lowering child-caregiver ratios and group sizes, boosting caregivers’ levels of education, and increasing the safety and stimulation of child-care environments,” writes Cathryn L. Booth, a research professor in the department of family and child nursing at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Ellen Lubell, the spokeswoman for the New York City-based Child Care Action Campaign, said that the study presents a “slightly rosier” picture of child care in the United States than the 1995 study did, but she added that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

“Most of our kids are still not receiving care that is stimulating enough to help them reach their full potential,” she said. “It’s clear that a far greater investment is needed to improve quality for all children.”

Mothers Still Matter

The newest round of research, presented late last month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Diego, also provides parents and providers with a few new pieces of information.

For example, the researchers found that a mother’s influence on her child is not affected by the amount of time the child spends in care.

“A lot of people are concerned that the influence of the family will be lost if children are in full-time care, but that is not the case,” Ms. Clarke-Stewart said. “That’s new and somewhat reassuring.”

Also, because the study examines a range of child-care providers, the researchers were able to draw some conclusions about which environments might be better for children.

Children in centers do better than those in other types of care on measures of cognitive and language development, the study found, even when those children have been in care since they were infants.

Ms. Clarke-Stewart called that a “surprising and reassuring” finding, given that some have questioned whether children in large centers can receive adequate one-on-one attention from caregivers. “Even some of the kids in centers from a very early age are doing fine,” she said.

The researchers, however, note that the finding does not prove that child care is good for children. It’s possible that a child’s natural abilities “may be eliciting more conversation and stimulation from the caregiver,” which would make it look as if the child-care setting was contributing to the child’s development.

The researchers’ next task will be to analyze data on the children from their late-preschool and early-elementary years and to examine such events as their transition into school.

The study has received funding for another five years, and there are plans to follow the children into adolescence.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Most Child Care ‘Adequate,’ Latest Findings in Study Say

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