Child Care and Its Impact on Young Children
Lieselotte Ahnert1, PhD, Michael E. Lamb2, PhD
1University of Vienna, Austria
2University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
All over the world, children typically live with and are cared for primarily by their parents but also receive care from extended family members, neighbours, friends, and paid care providers. In industrialized countries, increased reliance on paid child care, often provided by publicly subsidized child care provisions, has fostered intense research on the effects (both positive and negative) on children’s health, cognitive capacity, adjustment, and social relationships.1 Although there is consensus that parents remain the most important influences on children’s well-being and development, it is equally clear that nonparental care can also have a substantial impact. Consequently, researchers have focused on the nature of nonparental care and the ways how children from different family backgrounds, with different educational, developmental, and individual needs are affected.
Despite a voluminous body of literature on the effects of early child care, the major findings have been profoundly clarified by findings obtained in multi-site studies, such as the US NICHD Early Child Care Study (NICHD-SECC),2 the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa),3 the British Effective Pre-School and Primary Education Study (EPPE)4 or the German National Study of Child Care in Early Childhood (NUBBEK)5 with large numbers of participants.
However, researchers still need to focus, not only on children’s experiences when they are in nonparental care facilities, but also on other aspects of the broader ecology, including the intersection between parental and nonparental care. For example, children in child care have different experiences at home than do children who only experience parental care.6,7,8 Thus, researchers need to determine whether differences between children at home and children who also attend child care settings are attributable to their experiences in care or to their different experiences at home (or both!). At minimum, researchers need to control for children’s home experience when they investigate the effects of children’s nonparental care experiences. They must also seek to improve the clarity of the findings by conducting meta-analyses that summarize the results of multiple studies.9,12
Key Research Questions
Researchers have explored the effects of child care on many aspects of development, although research on cognitive and language development (especially in the context of compensatory educational programs) as well as social-emotional development and stress reactivity have been especially informative. Scholars and politicians who question the value and appropriateness of child care have been particularly concerned that children cannot maintain supportive relationships with their parents when they attend child care centres. They have also argued that experiences of nonparental care create stresses that adversely affect children’s behavioural adjustment. By contrast, those who value child care have emphasized that children need to develop good relationships with care providers and peers in order to benefit fully from their enriching experiences in nonparental care. They also acknowledge that stimulating care at home is influential and that it complements the effects of formal educational strategies and programs.
Recent Research Results
The transition from home to child care is stressful for many children,10,11 so care providers need to help children manage their responses to this stress. Children adapt to the new child care environments successfully only if the centres keep levels of stress low or moderate by ensuring that care providers establish meaningful and positive relationships with children and provide care of high quality.12,13
Care providers, of course, are able to develop significant relationships with children but the quality or security of those relationships depends on the care providers’ behaviour towards the group as a whole, rather than on the quality of interactions with individual children. Indeed, the emerging relationships between care providers and children reflect the characteristics and dynamics of the group whereas infant-parent attachments seem to be influenced more directly by dyadic interactions.9 Researchers who have studied the behaviours, childrearing beliefs, and attitudes of care providers have shown that their group-oriented behaviours affect not only the formation of care provider-child attachments14 but also classroom climates, and harmonious peer play.15 In addition, attitudes and beliefs affect care providers’ behaviours, particularly when children of different cultural backgrounds are being cared for. Not sharing the care provider’s ethnic heritage can make the relationship difficult.5,16,17
Whether or not children in child care maintain good relationships with their parents depends upon parents’ ability to provide sensitive care at home.18 Furthermore, it is important that parents establish a balance between home and child care settings, and that they themselves continue to provide types of intimate interaction seldom available in child care centers.19 Long hours in child care and stressful parent-child relationships are associated with angry aggressive behaviour20,21 whereas good relationships with care providers help minimize aggression and behaviour problems.22
From age two, children begin to interact more extensively with peers. Such encounters provide excellent opportunities for learning the rules of social interaction: how to evaluate social offers, to conduct dialogues, and most importantly, to resolve conflicts with peers constructively. However, children with difficult temperaments are less likely to interact positively with peers, and this is an especially difficult problem in centres of low quality.23 Moreover, children with difficult temperaments are especially likely to be affected, positively and negatively, by variations in the quality of care.24,25 Experiences with peers eventually help children with difficult temperaments to develop better social skills than do counterparts who have not experienced nonparental care.26,27
Despite contradictory earlier findings about the effects of child care on cognitive and linguistic development, more recent research has consistently documented the enduring and positive effects of high-quality child care―even on later school performance.2,28,29 Almost all children (not only those from less stimulating home environments) appear to benefit cognitively, with both full- and part-time attendance having similar effects.4,30
Do children in child care develop differently from those without child care experiences? Many scholars were initially worried that nonparental child care might be risky for children and thus sought to determine whether children in child care were as well adapted psychologically and behaviourally as children cared for exclusively at home. Later researchers began to explore the advantages of good-quality care and its potential benefits for children. In particular, they noted that child care offers opportunities for more extensive social contacts with peers and adults, and thus may open extended social worlds for children. Positive child care experiences may also enhance later educational opportunities, such that those experiencing early nonparental care are better able to benefit from education, adjust to routines, and resist conflicts. Nevertheless, home remains the emotional centre of children’s lives and it is important that supportive parent–child relationships not be harmed by child care experiences even when children spend considerable amounts of time in care.
Because children can profit from experiences in nonparental child care, child care needs to be of good quality and should provide access to a variety of positive social relationships. To ensure that care environments are developmentally appropriate, however, adult–child ratios in child care must be kept low. Group size and composition also need to be considered as mediators of the quality of individual care provider–child relationships.2 It is also important that regulations and informed parents ensure and demand the highest possible quality of care. Because caring for others’ children (in groups) requires different care strategies than caring for ones’ own children, care providers need to be valued by society, well compensated, and enriched by serious and careful education and/or training.
- Lamb ME, Ahnert L. Nonparental child care: Context, quality, correlates, and consequences. In: Damon W, Lerner RM, Renninger KA, Sigel IE eds. Child psychology in practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2006:950-1016. Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 4.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Characteristics and quality of child care for toddlers and preschoolers. Applied Developmental Psychology 2000;4(3):116-135.
- Lekhal R. Do type of child care and age of entry predict behavior problems during early childhood? Results from a large Norwegian longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Development 2012;36(3):197-204.
- Sylva K, Melhuish E, Sammons P, Siraj-Blatchford I, Taggart B, eds. Early childhood matters: Evidence from the effective pre-school and primary education project. London, UK: Routledge; 2010.
- Beckh K, Becker-Stoll F. Formations of attachment relationships towards teachers lead to conclusions for public child care. International Journal of Developmental Science 2016;10(3-4):103-110.
- Ahnert L, Rickert H, Lamb ME. Shared caregiving: Comparison between home and child care settings. Developmental Psychology 2000;36(3):339-351.
- Gordon RA, Colaner AC, Usdansky ML, & Melgar C. Beyond an "Either-Or" approach to home- and center-based child care: Comparing children and families who combine care types with those who use just one. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2013;28(4):918-935.
- Borge AIH, Rutter M, Cote S, Tremblay RE. Early child care and physical aggression: differentiating social selection and social causation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2004;45(2):367-376.
- Ahnert L, Pinquart M, Lamb ME. Security of children’s relationships with nonparental care providers: A meta-analysis. Child Development 2003;77(2):664–679.
- Ahnert L, Gunnar M, Lamb ME, Barthel M. Transition to child care: Associations of infant-mother attachment, infant negative emotion and cortisol elevations. Child Development 2004;75(2):639-650.
- Datler W, Ereky-Stevens K, Hover-Reisner N, Malmberg LE. Toddlers' transition to out-of-home day care: Settling into a new care environment. Infant Behavior & Development 2012;35(3):439-451.
- Geoffroy M-C, MCôté S, Parent S, Séguin JR. Daycare attendance, stress, and mental health. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2006;51(2):607-615.
- Groeneveld MG, Vermeer HJ, van Ijzendoorn MH, Linting M. Children's wellbeing and cortisol levels in home-based and center-based child care. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2010;25(4):502-514.
- Ereky-Stevens K, Funder A, Katschnig T, Malmberg LE, Datler W. Relationship building between toddlers and new caregivers in out-of-home child care: Attachment security and caregiver sensitivity. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2018;42(1):270-279.
- van Schaik SD, Leseman PP, de Haan M. Using a group-centered approach to observe interactions in early childhood education. Child Development 2018;89(3):897-913.
- Howes C, Shivers EM. New child-caregiver attachment relationships: Entering child care when the caregiver is and is not an ethnic match. Social Development 2006;15(4):574-590.
- Huijbregts SK, Leseman PPM, Tavecchio LWC. Cultural diversity in center-based child care: Childrearing beliefs of professional caregivers from different cultural communities in the Netherlands. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2008;23(2):233-244.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. The effects of infant child care on infant-mother attachment security: Results of the NICHD study of early child care. Child Development 1997;68(5):860-879.
- Ahnert L, Lamb ME. Shared care: Establishing a balance between home and child care settings. Child Development 2003;74(4):1044-1049.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Does amount of time spent in child care predict socioemotional adjustment during the transition to kindergarten? Child Development 2003;74(4):976-1005.
- Belsky J, et al. Are there long-term effects of early child care? Child Development 2007;78(3):681-701.
- Buyse E, Verschueren K, & Doumen S. Preschoolers' attachment to mother and risk for adjustment problems in kindergarten: Can teachers make a difference? Social Development 2011;20(1):33-50.
- Deynoot-Schaub MJG, Riksen-Walraven JM. Peer contacts of 15-month-olds in child care: Links with child temperament, parent-child interaction and quality of child care. Social Development 2006;15(4):709-729.
- Phillips D, Crowell NA, Sussman AL, Gunnar M, Fox N, Hane AA, Bisgaier J. Reactive temperament and sensitivity to context in child care. Social Development 2012;21(3):628-643.
- Pluess M, Belsky J. Differential susceptibility to rearing experience: The case of child care. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2009;50(4):396-404.
- Almas AN, Degnan KA, Fox NA, Phillips DA, Henderson HA, Moas OL, Hane AA. The relations between infant negative reactivity, non-maternal child care, and children's interactions with familiar and unfamiliar peers. Social Development 2011;20(4):718-740.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Social competence with peers in third grade: Associations with earlier peer experiences in child care. Social Development 2008;17(3):419-453.
- Campbell FA, Pungello EP, Miller-Johnson S, Burchinal M, Ramey CT. The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology 2001;37(2):231-242.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. The relation of child care to cognitive and language development. Child Development 2000;71(4):960-980.
- Adi-Japha E, Klein PS. Relations between parenting quality and cognitive performance of children experiencing varying amounts of child care. Child Development 2009;80(3):893-906.
How to cite this article:
Ahnert L, Lamb ME. Child Care and Its Impact on Young Children. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Bennett J, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/child-care-early-childhood-education-and-care/according-experts/child-care-and-its-impact-young-0. Updated September 2018. Accessed September 17, 2021.