October 6, 2006

Family Has More Influence on Child Development than Child Care

Picture of Family Sitting on Park Bench

Many families rely on child care, but how it affects a child’s development has been controversial. A new compendium of findings reveals that a child’s family life has more influence through age four and a half than the child’s experience in child care.

NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) launched the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development in 1991 to understand how differences in child care experiences affect children’s development. For 15 years, researchers from ten sites around the country followed the development from birth of more than 1,000 healthy children from ethnically diverse households. They visited each child and family at home, in child care (if used), and in a laboratory playroom. They also contacted families regularly by phone and by mail. Using tests, questionnaires and direct observation, they collected information on how the children responded to their environments, how they were developing relative to their peers, how they interacted with their parents and other children and what their usual mood or personality was.

A new booklet explains the study’s findings, with notes referring to the original publications, which appeared in journals such as Applied Developmental Science, Child Development, Developmental Psychology and the Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The researchers found that the quality, quantity and type of child care affected children’s development up to age four-and-a-half. Those who spent 30 or more hours in child care each week showed more problem behavior in child care and in kindergarten (but not at home). They also had more episodes of minor illness than those who spent fewer hours in child care. However, children who attended child care centers had better language and social skills and better pre-academic skills involving letters and numbers.

The quality of child care made an important difference. Children in child care centers that met accreditation standards for adult-to-child ratios, group size and staff training had better reading and math skills than children who received lower quality child care. They were also better able to think, respond and interact with the world around them.

Parent and family features, however, were two to three times more strongly linked to child development than child care. Children did better if mothers were more sensitive, responsive and attentive. They 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 family features were as important for children who were in child care as for those who weren’t.

“This study shows only a slight link between child care and child development,” said Dr. Duane Alexander, Director of NICHD. “Child care clearly matters to children's development, but family characteristics — and children’s experiences within their families — appear to matter more.”

The researchers are now following the children through ninth grade to see whether the differences in their development due to early child care and family experiences continue to affect them later in life.

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