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The Deal With Daycare: What Do the Data Denote?

Nonparental childcare is now the norm. What does that mean for children?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. family has undergone fundamental changes over the past two generations. In the mid-twentieth century, the male breadwinner/female homemaker family was both normative and aspirational. Since then, both norms and aspirations have shifted. Currently, in most two-parent families with children under six years old, both parents are gainfully employed outside the home. Two thirds of young children receive some nonparental care (daycare), compared with one fifth of children in the mid seventies. Consequently, daycare has grown to become an essential social institution. Along the way, it has stirred both hope and apprehension in almost equal measures.

The hope: Daycare would help accelerate children’s development, help level the playing field for children from disadvantaged home environments, and free all parents—and in particular women—to participate fully and productively in the economy, thus elevating their families’ fortunes.

The apprehension: Daycare would disorganize and weaken the family unit, interfere with parent-child bonds, erode parental authority, and hinder children’s development by exposing them for long stretches in their vulnerable years to crowded, impersonal environments.

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Since the 1970s, childcare research in the US (and elsewhere) has undertaken the difficult task of testing these contrasting predictions, with studies producing an equivocal mix of contradictory, conditional, and inconclusive answers of the kind that that tend to frustrate policy makers and parents alike, as well as the researchers themselves.

And yet, difficulties and ongoing controversies notwithstanding, the field has managed in the past several decades to settle with reasonable confidence on several insights and working conclusions. What follows is a brief summary of the pros, cons, and unknowns of daycare in the U.S., as suggested by the best available evidence.

Daycare Effects are Smaller than Home Effects

An over-arching finding in the literature is that daycare influences are less important than home influences, even for children who spend much time in daycare. In other words, home and family variables account for more of the variance in children’s developmental outcomes than daycare variables. For example, results from the large, longitudinal NICHD Study Of Early Child Care have shown that, for cognitive outcomes, the typical effect sizes for nonparental childcare were approximately a half to a third as large as home environment effects.

Daycare Does Not Damage Children, But May Contribute to Developmental Risks Under Certain Conditions

Nonparental care arrangements—and by proxy, maternal employment— are not inherently risky for children. In fact, daycare children are not systematically different than those raised exclusively at home in terms of their overall developmental trajectories. In other words, within-group differences are generally larger than between-group differences in these groups. Research has, however, found that some infants—particularly those who began daycare in the first year of life, who spent more than 10 hours a week in daycare, and whose mothers provided less sensitive care—had an increased risk of developing insecure infant-mother attachments.

Daycare is Linked to Externalizing Behaviors in Children, But Mostly in Low Quality Care

Research has converged on the conclusion that children’s time in daycare is associated with increased noncompliance. In particular, children who experience formal daycare center care for long periods of time in early childhood are more likely to manifest behavior problems later on, although these increases do not rise to the level of clinical diagnosis. These effects are stronger in low quality care arrangements and when group size is larger. These externalizing effects do not show up consistently, and are sometimes contradicted, in studies of high quality daycare.

Daycare is Linked to Increased Rates of Infections and Stress, Yet the Developmental Implications are Unclear

Research has shown that, compared to children raised at home, by and large young children in daycare (particularly those under 18-months-old) experience more common illnesses, such as respiratory and ear infections. At the same time, exposure to germs in day care may serve to improve the children’s immune system in the long run.

Another line of research has found elevated stress levels in daycare children, as measured by blood cortisol. These effects tend to appear mostly during transition to daycare, and in young children under three years old. The effects are generally small in size and are moderated by a host of contextual factors. The cortisol rise in daycare is more pronounced in lower quality environments, and in children who are insecurely attached to teachers and who spend more time in daycare. At the same time, daycare exposure may provide a protective factor in some instances. For example, research has shown that for children with more distressed home life, daycare attendance is associated with reductions in cortisol levels.

Daycare is Linked to Improved Cognitive, Language, and Academic Development, Yet Mostly in High Quality Center Care

Perhaps the most consistent and robust positive finding in the daycare research literature has been that nonparental childcare—particularly high quality daycare center care rich with stimulation and structured educational content—benefits children’s cognitive development and school readiness. This appears to be particularly true for children from disadvantaged home environments. In addition to predicting cognitive and linguistic advantages, the high quality daycare experience may provide a buffer for at-risk children against some of the negative effects of adverse home environments. Research has shown that high quality daycare is linked to cognitive development for disadvantaged children and may buffer against delayed language development when the quality of verbal interactions at home is low. In some cases, daycare may help narrow the achievement gap between privileged and under-privileged children. High quality nonparental childcare experience may also buffer children against home adversity such as maternal depression.

Some Early Daycare Effects may Last into Adolescence and Beyond

Research has provided evidence that early intervention, particularly high quality and intensive programs, can have demonstrable long-term effects. Such results, however, are not easy to achieve, and many efforts at changing children’s long-term trajectories through early intervention have proven ineffective. For short-term gains to be maintained requires sustained support and guidance beyond the original early childhood intervention period. For example, children who graduate from high quality daycare into low quality schools are less likely to maintain their gains than those who graduate into high quality schools.

High Quality of Care is Important, Yet Far from Normative

Research has shown that care quality is a robust predictor of any gains associated with nonparental care. Quality of care is generally assessed along two dimensions: structure and process. Structural elements are the more regulatable classroom conditions, such as group size, adult-child ratio, and caregiver education. Process elements are those pertaining to caregiver-child interactions, their emotional tone and instructional value. The research to date has shown that the quality of care—in particular, the process quality of the caregiver-child interaction—is a consistent predictor of children’s developmental trajectory and outcome. More specifically, responsive, sensitive, warm, and engaged caregivers constitute the most important positive factor in the child’s emerging developmental narrative.

Given the strong empirical case for the importance of care quality (not to mention the self-evident moral case), one would assume that high quality care is the norm in the US. Yet the available data contradict this assumption. For example, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, which conducted observations of over 600 nonmaternal child care settings of all kinds (grandparents, in-home care, child care homes, and centers) in nine states, found child care to be most often merely fair in quality, with only 11 percent of the settings rated 'excellent.'

Multiple Daycare Arrangements and High Caregiver Turnover Undermine Quality of Care

Another finding emerging from the care quality literature concerns the importance of care stability. Instability of care manifests in two main ways. First is the experience of multiple care arrangements by the child. Nationally, 15% of children younger than five years old regularly attend more than one child-care arrangement. Multiple arrangements predict increased behavior problems and decreased prosocial behavior. Moving from one arrangement to multiple arrangements may be particularly disruptive for children.

In addition, instability in daycare also manifests in caregiver turnover, which is generally high, due mainly to high job stress, low social status, and low pay. Child care workers are among the lowest-paid professionals in the US, and qualified workers are thus difficult to recruit and retain.

Daycare is in High Demand, Yet Often in Short Supply

Compounding the problem of low quality care is the problem of childcare availability. Currently in the U.S. multiple communities experience supply shortages of high quality, licensed childcare. These areas are sometimes referred to as, ‘child care deserts,’ a metaphor borrowed from research on food insecurity. Childcare deserts are found mostly in low-income rural communities, where the absence of childcare options is one more obstacle parents must negotiate along with myriad others, such as poor public transportation and irregular work hours and incomes.

The Cost of Daycare is High, Yet Caregiver Pay is Low

Currently in the U.S., daycare is expensive, and out of reach for many families. Daycare costs have increased at double the rate of inflation since the recession of 2008. A recent report found that in 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs exceed the average cost of in-state college tuition at public 4-year institutions.

Moreover, while the cost of daycare has increased, workers’ salaries have not. Child care workers earn a median hourly wage of $10.31, which is almost forty percent below the $17.00 median hourly wage of workers in other occupations. Many childcare workers do not receive health benefits or pensions. Consequently, nearly half of daycare workers receive some form of public assistance, compared to about one quarter of US workforce as a whole, and many daycare workers cannot afford daycare for their own children.


Daycare is by now a normative part of family life in the US, as it is in most developed countries. For good or ill, the effects of daycare on children’s development are on the whole smaller than family influences. Daycare is not inherently harmful to children, and may in fact help accelerate their development, as well as provide a buffer against, and compensation for, the ill-effects of disadvantaged home environments. The positive and protective effects of daycare are associated mainly with educationally stimulating, high quality care of the kind that is most often provided in licensed, regulated daycare centers.

At the end of the day, home and daycare are not competitors but collaborators, and should not be conceptualized as being at odds or in conflict with each other. What U.S. parents and children need their childcare system to provide is high quality, affordable, and accessible care. As with healthcare, the childcare system in the U.S. has struggled mightily, and thus far unsuccessfully, to provide consumers with services that combine these three essential qualities. In the U.S. today, affordable and accessible care is often of low quality; high quality and affordable care is inaccessible to most, and care that is accessible and high quality is often prohibitively expensive. This state of affairs is not satisfactory, and should be unacceptable in a nation that aspires to prize and protect its children, families, and future.

*An earlier, full version of this article has appeared in The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development.


Selected References

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