|Family Characteristics Have More Influence On
Child Development Than Does Experience In Child Care
A compendium of findings from a study funded by the National Institutes
of Health reveals that a child’s family life has more influence
on a child’s development through age four and a half than does
a child’s experience in child care.
“This study shows only a slight link between child care and child
development,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH component
which funded the study. “Child care clearly matters to children’s
development, but family characteristics — and children’s
experiences within their families — appear to matter more.”
The findings, from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth
Development, are detailed in a new booklet available as a pdf file
at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/childcare. The
booklet is based on the scientific literature, compiling findings
that have appeared in such journals as Applied Developmental
Science, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, and
the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, from 1999 through
2003. Included in the booklet are detailed notes that refer the
reader to the original publication in which the individual findings
Because many families must rely on child care, the NICHD launched
the study in 1991 to understand how differences in child care experiences
might relate to children’s development. For 15 years, researchers
from 10 sites around the country have followed the development
of more than 1,000 healthy children from across the United States.
Children were enrolled in the study at birth. The study included
children from ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged
households. More than 80 percent of the children in the study grew
up in two-parent families.
The study tracked children’s experience in child care. It was
not designed to determine cause and effect and so could not demonstrate
conclusively whether or not a given aspect of the child care experience
had a particular effect.
Children in the sample averaged 27 hours per week in child care
from birth through age four and a half. Most started out in child
care in the homes of relatives or non-relatives in infancy and
made the transition to center-based care when they were older.
The study demonstrated that quality, quantity, and type of child
care — defined as any care provided on a regular basis by
someone other than the child’s mother — are modestly linked
to the development of children up to age four-and-a-half. Among
the study’s major findings that are described in the booklet:
- Children who received higher quality child care were better
able to think, respond, and interact with the world around them—and
had somewhat better reading and math skills—than children who
received lower quality child care.
- Children who spent 30 or more hours in child care each week
showed somewhat more problem behavior in child care and in kindergarten
(but not at home) and had more episodes of minor illness than
children who spent fewer hours in child care each week
- Children who attended child care centers had somewhat better
language and social skills and better pre-academic skills involving
letters and numbers, but showed somewhat more problem behavior
when they first entered school than did children who experienced
other types of child care settings.
However, parent and family features were two to three times more
strongly linked to child development than was child care during
the preschool years.
For example, children did better when parents were more educated,
when families’ incomes were higher, when mothers had fewer or no
symptoms of depression, and when families had well organized routines,
books, and play materials, and took part in learning activities.
These features were as important to the well-being of children
who had been in child care as they were for children who had not
been in child care.
Study researchers periodically visited each child and family at
home, in child care (if used), and in a laboratory playroom at
each of the 10 sites. They also contacted families regularly by
phone and by mail. Using tests, questionnaires, and direct observation,
researchers collected information on how children responded to
their environment, how they were developing in relation to what
is typical at a given age, how they interacted with their parents
and other children, and what their usual mood or personality was.
They also looked at children’s home environments; parents’ attitudes
toward work, family, and child care; how child care was structured;
and how providers cared for children.
Children in child care centers that met accreditation standards
for adult-to-child ratios, group size, and training of staff had
somewhat more reading and math knowledge and better language comprehension.
They also were somewhat more cooperative at age three than children
in centers that did not meet the standards. In essence, the more
standards the child care met, the better children did.
Even though links existed between child care features and child
development, the quality of interactions between mothers and children
was more important for children’s development. Children did better
if mothers were more sensitive, responsive, and attentive. And
mothers were more likely to be like this if they were more educated,
lived in more economically advantaged households, and had more
These NICHD-funded researchers are now following the development
of the children through the ninth grade to see whether even minor
differences in children’s development due to different early child
care and family experiences might affect children later in life.
(More detail about the NICHD study can be found at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/seccyd.cfm and
on the study Web site at http://secc.rti.org.)
The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after
birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and
population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information,
visit the Institute’s Web site at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.