What these myriad day care studies report is that the more time a child spends in child care, and the younger the child enters a care setting, the more at risk that child is for experiencing negative effects…

Parent-child interactions and the quality of the relationship are very important, especially in situations where the parent and child are separated for extended periods.

Parents consider a multitude of factors and circumstances when it comes to making decisions regarding early childhood care for their children. Because we live in a society that lacks sufficient paid parental leave policies, undervalues the work of parenting and lacks financial supports for parents who stay at home with their children, it can be very difficult to decide what is right, when to return to work, how many hours to work, and what your child really needs.

Thankfully, several decades of research now exist in the field of early childhood care and its impact on babies, toddlers and young children. This data has shown that while there are many benefits of early childhood care and education, placing a child in non-maternal care can have a lasting negative impact on that child’s life unless there is sensitive consideration of timing, quality and goodness of fit for the child. Because of the need for a primary caregiver to establish healthy attachment, regulate emotions and manage stressful situations the separation that occurs with childcare placement must be handled with knowledge and sensitivity. (See Basics.)

The myriad studies on early childhood care report that the more time a child spends in childcare, and the younger the child enters a care setting, the more at risk that child is for experiencing negative effects. Greater time in care is associated with more disobedience, more defiance, more aggressive behaviour and more destructive behaviour. These problems are ongoing and include difficulty in the transition to the school environment. Spending more than 30 hours a week in care is correlated with such problems. Additionally, non-maternal care in the first year of life is linked with insecure attachment and increased aggression in children aged 3 to 8.

Research also shows that children under 3 who spend a full day in childcare experience a rise in cortisol levels in the afternoon. Cortisol is a blood hormone that indicates a stress reaction, which can occur even when a child appears settled. The presence of rising levels of afternoon cortisol in the body is not normal and indicates a system that cannot function in an optimal manner. Infants and young babies, especially those children under the age of 1, may be especially prone to the impact of stress as they are more reliant on their primary caregiver and much more affected by separation. Additionally, boys and shy children both appear to fare worse in early childhood centre settings.

So what does this mean for early childhood care placement if a family does choose this option?

  • The more time a child spends in care the more risk there is for problematic behaviours, so limiting the hours in care can be helpful.
  • Full-time care (30 or more hours per week) equates with a rise in cortisol in the afternoons in under-3s, so part-time care is preferable for this age group.
  • The younger the child, the more vulnerable to the negative impact of separation, so delaying a return to work is ideal. Maternal care for the first year appears to be optimal for most children.
  • Children older than 3 have been shown to receive some benefit from childcare, often showing better cognitive abilities than their peers. Once a child reaches an age where they have an established secure attachment system and can benefit from group interaction, appropriate amounts of time in early childhood education settings can be a very positive experience.
  • Somewhere between 6 and 12 months of age, babies typically experience ‘separation anxiety’ (see Separations). This anxiety is real and should be responded to with respect and support.
  • All children are different. Because of differences in temperaments, personalities and experiences, some babies and young children have an easier time making the transition to care than others. Pay close attention to what your baby is trying to tell you and take care not to overwhelm her with situations she is not equipped to handle.
  • Boys appear to fare worse than girls in most childcare settings, as do shy children. Thus it is important to make sure your child is settled, included and engaged with a trusted adult who knows him and has his best interests in mind.
  • Children in care fare better when they are in the care of a single, stable caregiver who becomes an attachment figure in their life. If possible, avoid centres with high caregiver-child ratios or high staff turnover. Make sure your child has a main or dedicated caregiver at the centre or attempt to find in-home care with one consistent person. A good caregiver will become an important part of the child’s life. Changes in caregivers should be minimized and must be handled sensitively.
  • Research has shown that sensitive parenting is a strong predictor of emotional wellbeing for the child. Parent-child interactions and the quality of the relationship are very important, especially in situations where the parent and child are separated for extended periods.

Many families are faced with a situation that requires their child to spend time in childcare away from her parents. Understanding the impact of care and how to protect against its potential for harm can help significantly in making optimal choices for the family.

Families need support to take care of themselves financially while meeting the needs of their children. Our society would benefit from policies that guard parents’ incomes and professional status for long periods of time so they can dedicate themselves to their new babies. In the absence of such a system we can only educate ourselves and make the best choices possible for ourselves and our children.

(You can find professional articles and books that describe, support and further the information presented in this paper in our References.)


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