Is Childcare Bad for Babies and Children?
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Figuring out who to care for your child while you work or are otherwise unavailable can be one of the most difficult things to do. Childcare has become an integral part of US society. In the 19th century, welfare reform and workfore fluctuations due to wartimes led to the growth of the "day care" movement. As this movement grew, the need for childcare for immigrant and working mothers also grew. The 20th and 21st centuries have experienced an increase among mothers and primary caregivers in the workforce, and the global pandemic has shifted how many families function and spend their time. The ever-changing family structures and employment influences continue to expand the need for childcare programs, such as center-based childcare, preschools, and family childcare homes.
As communities continue to rebuild and fund childcare programs to help supplement the needs of parents’ schedules, questions rise about whether these programs are beneficial or harmful to children’s development. For two centuries research has attempted to explore whether there are key factors that predict children’s positive and negative outcomes, and if so what are those factors. Mostly White men, and some women, researchers have argued that mothers should return to working as full-time at-home mothers because children who are in childcare suffer from behavioral, social, and attachment problems due to spending fewer hours in maternal care. However, this was a particulatly biased reserach lens as none of it ever included fahters, grandparents, or other parental figures besides biological mothers. Researchers argued that the care children were receiving outside of the home environment is a direct link to children’s poor behavioral skills and social skills. However, we now know that high-quality childcare enhances children’s social development and, in fact, is beneficial to young children, especially to children in low-income families. There are predictors for whether children will have significant benefits from childcare to include quality of the childcare setting, primary parent/caregiver education, family income and parental responsiveness. For this article, we will focus on quality of childcare and parental responsiveness.
Quality of Childcare
Over the years, the literature has defined childcare as any care provided for a child for a minimum of 10 hours per week by any individual besides the maternal figure. This is already problematic because it suggests that a full-time stay-at-home father would not be considered in the basic definition even though there is a growing number of families who have a father as the primary caregiver for the child's early developmental stages. Thankfully, this definition is slowing expanding to include various types of family structures.
Quality. There are two types of quality when discussing childcare, structural and process. Structural quality includes characteristics, such as classroom size, group size, and teacher to child ratios, whereas process quality examines the provider’s responsiveness, which is also referred to as teacher child interactions. Process quality is the strongest predictor for quality of childcare. The quality of childcare is measured in many ways, but a popular approach is using nationally approved measurement scales such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) and the Observational Record of the Caregiving Environment (ORCE), which both measure structural and process quality. The Arnett Scale of Provider Sensitivity (Arnett) interaction measurement tool measures process quality (Pianta et al, 2005). The ECERS, ORCE, and the Arnett are not an exhaustive list of nationally approved measurement tools. A childcare program rating high on one or more of the approved scales is considered a quality (or high-quality) program.
Quality childcare plays a large role in children’s social development, especially children from at risk families. Studies have found that children who attended childcare centers rated as good quality on the ECERS and on the Arnett interaction measurement tool, had the highest ratings of social competencies and decreased parent-reported behavioral problems. Also, childcare quality was related to providers’ level of education, such that, higher quality childcare programs employed childcare providers who had a minimum of a high school education. Children who attended childcare programs with providers who did not have a high school diploma had higher reports of social and behavioral problems.
Researchers have examined the social and emotional development of children in childcare. Some of the biggest benefits are for children from low-income families spending time in high quality childcare programs. Their gains in their social and emotional development and decreases in externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors are a testament to the developmental progress that young children can make when placed in healthy learning environments that are suited to their needs. Consequently, as children spend more time in low quality programs their ratings of problem behaviors increase. The higher a childcare facility is rated on a measurement tool of quality, the more likely children are to have good social skills. Even when considering teacher-child interactions, quality of childcare tends to be the best predictor of children’s social development, such that children in quality programs tend to have teachers who are sensitive and thought-provoking. Similarly, higher quality childcare and children who experience close teacher-child relationships usually have lower ratings of behavioral problems and higher rating of social skills through the second grade. Conclusively, research finds quality of childcare to be a particularly strong predictor for the social development of children from low income families. Children from low income families who attend childcare environments with good process quality score better on social skills assessments than children who attend childcare settings low in process quality. Children’s social benefits can be enhanced with the regular attendance of a full-time quality program.
Parental Mental Health: Parental Responsiveness
Studies have explored parental responsiveness, typically maternal responsiveness, to determine what factors influence whether young children will be able to reap the benefits of high quality childcare. Findings indicate that parental mental health, such as depression and parental emotional capacity or sensitivity had a larger effect on children’s social development than income. Children living in families where the primary caregiver was less sensitive to the child’s emotional needs and showed higher levels of depression, are more likely to exhibit significant behavioral problems and lack social competencies regardless of family income. Research suggests that although family income is a predictor of children’s social development, parental responsiveness is an even stronger and more reliable predictor.
Questions to Help Select a Childcare Provider
Since the average person isn't knowledgeable on what to look for in a quality childcare provider, you may be wondering how you can use this information when exploring childcare options for your child or when wanting to switch childcare providers. First, give yourself some grace. Much like when you are interviewing for jobs, it can be really difficult to discern whether a place will be a good fit for you until after you have accepted the position and been there for awhile, selecting a childcare provider for your child can be the same way. Nevertheless, there are some basic questions you may want to ask and some things to consider when you visit.
Please keep in mind that childcare regulations vary across the country, and this list of questions is not exhaustive. This article considers some of the national standards from organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). To make this specific for where you live or work, please consult with your local office of childcare for a copy of their regulations. Additionally, if you are looking for someone to care for your child in your home, you may need to explore other questions.
Is your childcare license active?
May I see a copy of your last two inspection reports?
What is your philosophy or approach to caring for [insert children of your child's age range]?
What are the education levels of the childcare teachers on staff?
Tell me more about your childcare rate.
May I see a copy of your daily schedule?
What teacher-child ratios do you maintain and how do you handle teacher callouts or unexpected illnesses?
If my child is enrolled here, what are your parental visitation policies? (This has shifted a bit due to COVID, but in general, it is good when centers allow parents to visit with flexibility)
How do you address childhood behavioral concerns such as biting?
Tell me about your saftey protocols including "shelterting in place" and evauations.
Research indicates that quality of childcare and paternal responsiveness are two predictors of whether children will benefit from childcare. It has been reported that quality childcare programs typically include teachers who are responsive and sensitive to the needs of the children in the classroom, teachers who foster close teacher-child relationships, and teachers who have a minimum of a high school education. Here are the major takeaways from today's article:
Emotionally responsive parents are important for child development.
Parental mental health directly impacts whether children will have the most benefits in their childcare environment.
Children in low-income families show more prosocial skills when parents are of good mental health and have moderate parenting skills
Warm and responsiveness towards their children are needed for social emotional development.
Research reveals that responsive parents have children with fewer behavioral problems and better social development.
Even though childcare can be a great resource for the social developmental and later academic needs of children, parental factors also play a role.
Finding someone to take care of a child may never be easy. You may have moments of doubts, anxious thoughts and may even find yourself dabbling in negtive self-talk if something doesn't go as you planned or envisioned. You are not alone in your feelings. I hope that you find childcare providers that are loving and nurturing to you child. In the meantime, please wrap yourself in compassion, douse yourself with love, and make moments for play.