Early Childhood

Intellectual Development Linked to Quality of Day Care

By Debra Viadero — April 16, 1997 4 min read
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New findings from an ongoing seven-year study offer reassurance for working parents: Day care, by itself, does not harm the intellectual development of children.

More important than the number of hours children spend in day care, the national study found, is the quality of care that infants and toddlers receive. Children whose caregivers respond and speak frequently to them learn to think and speak better than children in day-care settings with less warmth and verbal interaction.

But the researchers, working under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, also found one drawback to putting infants in child care. The more hours that infants ages 6 months and younger spent away from their mothers, the less sensitive their mothers were to them as the children grew older. But the researchers said this effect was weak compared with their findings about quality of care.

“It was not enough to make a sensitive mother insensitive or to make an engaged mother disengaged,” said Robert Pianta, an associate professor education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “We’re talking about moving a mother and child a little more on a continuum.”

Array of Settings

Mr. Pianta is one of 29 investigators working on the study, which was launched by the NICHD, a part of the National Institutes of Health, in 1991 at a cost of $30 million. The researchers are tracking the progress of 1,394 children from 10 sites around the nation from shortly after the children were born until they reach 1st grade.

The families in the study are diverse, both in socioeconomic background and choice of child care. The study included children who were cared for by mothers, fathers, grandparents, nannies, family day-care providers, and workers at child-care centers.

In their first progress report last year, the researchers concluded that, at 15 months of age, children in child care were no less emotionally attached to their mothers than those who stayed with their mothers at home.

Their new findings, presented here April 3 during the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, are for children up to age 3. They focus on speaking and thinking skills and on the quality of children’s relationships with their mothers.

The issue of whether day care is harmful to children’s well-being has been a hot topic in recent years, given the increasingly larger percentage of mothers in the nation’s workforce. In 1980, 38 percent of all mothers with children younger than age 1 worked outside the home. Now, half of all women with infants work and most of these women return to work before their children are 6 months old.

A number of other studies have weighed in on the subject, with mixed conclusions. But the NICHD study is the largest and most comprehensive to date.

“Almost all of the other studies have taken children from within child-care centers. We sampled children at birth and followed them over time, so we’re seeing a different package,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who is also on the study team.

Measuring Quality

Investigators on the project tested children and interviewed their families when the children were 6, 15, 24, and 36 months old. At the same intervals, they also videotaped interactions between mothers and their children and observed children in their day-care settings, counting the number of times, for example, that caregivers praised or talked to the children.

The research team defined “more positive child-care environments” as those where caregivers were more attentive and affectionate toward children, responding to their vocalizations, asking them questions, and talking to them.

Researchers said children in those high-quality environments performed better on cognitive and language tests at 15, 24, and 36 months of age. More positive caregiving also seemed to affect children’s relationships with their mothers, resulting in mothers who were more sensitive and involved with their children at 15 and 36 months.

Also, “when different types of care were equivalent, children in centers performed better on language and cognitive tests than children in other kinds of care,” added Aletha Huston, a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin and a study investigator.

The small negative effects of too many hours of child care on the relationship between mothers and their children also showed up across the children’s first three years of life--particularly among mothers who were not poor or suffering from depression.

When their children were 6 and 36 months old, mothers whose infants had spent the most hours in child care were deemed less sensitive to their children. The researchers made these judgments based on the videotaped sessions, noting, for example, when mothers did not respond to their children or intruded on their play. At 15 months, the mothers acted more negatively toward the children, according to the report.

Likewise, those children were less affectionate toward their mothers at 12 and 36 months of age.

But the researchers cautioned that their findings should be put in context. Although the quality of children’s care clearly mattered, it mattered less than some other factors, such as their families’ economic and emotional environment, their mothers’ mental health, and their own temperaments.

For More Information:

Information on the study is available from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 31 Center Drive, 9000 Rockville Pike, Mail Stop 2425, Room 2A32, Bethesda, Md.

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