News Release

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

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 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 were cited.

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 positive personalities.

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 and on the study Web site at

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): 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. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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