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Critical Issue: Day care


It is estimated that in the UK more than 600,000 mothers of preschool children are in paid employment. According to a US census reported in 1994, over 60% of mothers who had children under 2 were in employment. Although some of these children will be cared for by fathers or other close relatives, the majority will be cared for in some form of nursery or crèche or be placed with a childminder.




Although day care is widespread there is much controversy over its use. Psychologists disagree sharply about the developmental effects of day care on young children. Some agree with Bowlby’s prediction that long to medium term separation from the mother could have far-reaching consequences. He suggests that similar effects would occur if mothers of pre-school children went back to work and used some form of day care for their children. Others claim that, provided day care is high quality day care has no adverse effects on intellectual development and does not disrupt the child’s attachments. Some psychologists believe that it might even make a positive contribution to the child’s development.


Quality of day care


The quality of day care varies enormously, but there is general agreement on what counts as quality. According to Clarke-Stewart (1984), particularly important are:

  • A planned daily programme of activities that are appropriate for the developmental level of the child and are designed to promote cognitive and social development.
  • Caregivers with specialised training in child care (particularly in health and safety)
  • Adequate and nutritious meals
  • A health record for each child
  • Opportunities for parents to observe the setting and to discuss the child’s needs before and during time at the centre.
  • Small group size and low student-to-staff ratios (e.g. for 1-2 year-olds, 6-12 per group)


Effects of day care on children’s cognitive development


Common sense suggests that poor quality day care will not be a help to children. Indeed, in extreme cases the children may even suffer privation. Not all child care is of high-quality. In one of the most extensive studies of childminding in the UK, Mayall & Petrie (1977) found that only 1 in 4 were of good quality, a half were less than satisfactory and 1 in 5 were of poor quality. A third of childminders give up childminding each year. One third of the sample refused to take children from ethnic minorities. The survey was conducted in a disadvantaged area and so may not be typical of childminders nationally, but it should be borne in mind that poorer families will tend to use childminders rather than nurseries and these will often be untrained and unregistered.


Head Start and compensatory nursery education


Although there is some variation in standards, privation is unlikely in nurseries and so this type of child care is unlikely to have negative consequences for the intellectual development of the child. In fact it might even benefit those from poorer backgrounds, and this is precisely what studies of enrichment programmes such as Project Head Start have suggested. This was one of a number of schemes was set up during the 1960s with the aim of breaking into the cycle of deprivation typical of inner city USA. Large numbers of three to four year old children were involved. The intervention included attendance at a day care centre as well as work in the children’s own homes. Initial results were encouraging and showed that average IQ was raised by 10 points. However there was no control group because, understandably, no parents wanted their children to be excluded from the programme. Also problematic was the finding that the gains in IQ tended to fade away during the first years of elementary school. However later studies, including similar programmes involving nursery schooling, suggested that some gains can persist even into adolescence, with lower rates of delinquency and teenage pregnancy and better academic performance (e.g. Haskins, 1989).


These studies seem to suggest that good quality nursery provision can make a difference for disadvantaged children with poor and/or ill-educated parents. The gains are by no means guaranteed, however, and it is necessary to maintain programmes for longer than the initial ‘head start’ to consolidate the childrens’ progress.


Day care and socially advantaged children


Until recently the conclusion about the effects of day care on cognitive development was that it had little impact on children from advantaged families but was beneficial to disadvantaged children. However newer research suggests that this conclusion may have to be qualified. The study by Andersson (1992) conducted in Sweden has apparently demonstrated that even middle-class children can benefit, especially if day care begins at a very young age.

This longitudinal study involved a sample of more than 100 children from a variety of backgrounds, including single parent families. The children were selected at age 3 to 4 and the type of child care recorded, together with the age at which child care was begun. The children were assessed at ages 8 and 13. They were given a range of tests of their cognitive (i.e. IQ tests, school performance) and social development (mainly teacher ratings).

The findings of the study showed an association between age of entry into child care and cognitive development. Those children who had spent longest in day care had better school performance than those who had only a short time in day care or those who were cared for at home.


There was an important confounding variable in this study that must be kept in mind when interpreting the findings. Those children who started day care earliest tended to come from the wealthiest families. Thus the reason they did better could have been because they came from the most advantaged families.

It is also important to note that the study was conducted in Sweden, a country with a very highly developed system of social welfare and where the quality of day care is extremely high. The results may therefore not be typical. Other studies, particularly in the US have shown different results.


Timing of day care


A cautionary note to conclusions about the potential benefits of day care is provided in study by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and her colleges. In a longitudinal study involving more than 1000 children, assessments were made at age 3-4 and also age 5-6 of children who had been reared at home and others who had experienced varying types and amounts of day care. The results were that in middle-class white children (but not black children), those experiencing day care from before the age of one year had the lowest scores in vocabulary tests, but no negative effects were found for those starting day care after one year of age. However, among the five- & four-year-olds, the pattern of results was different. Children from the poorest families seemed to have benefited from day care starting before one year of age, but middle class children had lower scores (Baydar & Brooks-Gunn, 1991 & Caughy et al, 1994). Such findings appear to imply that day care that begins before one year can be harmful as far as cognitive development is concerned.




It may be that there is just not enough evidence to provide firm conclusions. However, Bee (1997) suggests the sometimes contradictory findings of research studies could be reconciled in the following way:


“The crucial issue is the discrepancy between the level of stimulation that the child would receive at home and the quality of day care. When the day care setting for the child provides more enrichment than the child would normally receive at home, we see some beneficial cognitive effects. When day care is less stimulating than the child’s home care would have been, it has negative effects.”


Effects of day care on childrens’ social development


Research on the effects of day care on social and personality development provides an equally conflicting picture as in the case of cognitive development. One area that has been extensively investigated is the effect of day care on attachment behaviour. This is a controversial issue since the time when Bowlby first suggested his maternal deprivation hypothesis. Many studies do not support the implication from Bowlby’s theory that working mothers who use day care from an early age run the risk of subjecting their infants to maternal deprivation. Provided day care is of sufficient quality, it should not necessarily weaken the child’s attachment to the mother.


One exception to this finding is a series of studies by Belsky & Rovine (1988, etc.). They claim to have evidence that insecure attachments were more likely to develop if the child had been receiving care of at least 20 hours per week for 4 months or more before its first birthday.


However, Belsky & Rovine used Ainsworth’s strange situation as a measure of attachment. Because children in day care are used to separations, subjecting them to the Strange Situation test may not provide an accurate measure of attachment behaviour among this group of children.


Another suggestion that is often made is that day care can have positive effects on the sociability of the child, particularly in respect of relationships with peers. Using a variety of measures, including aggressiveness, closeness and frequency of interaction, Shea (1981) showed that children aged 3-4 became more sociable during their time in nursery school. This improvement was greater in those spending 5 days per week than those spending just 2 days. Clarke-Stewart et al (1994) showed that among 2-3 year old children in day care, peer relationships were more advanced compared with those cared for at home. However not all children benefit form day care. Those with shy and difficult temperaments may find the experience stressful with consequent negative effects on their social development.




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