Nov. 16, 2022 — Working parents will be relieved to know that young children who spend extended hours in childcare centers are not at greater risk for behavior problems.
In a new study published in the journal Child Development, researchers looked at data on more than 10,000 preschoolers enrolled in seven studies from five countries in North America and Europe. It found that longer periods spent in center-based child care was not tied to overt antisocial behavior in toddlers and preschoolers.
Based on teacher and parent reports, the international investigators found no increase in “externalizing” behaviors, like bullying, picking fights, hitting, biting, kicking, hair pulling, and even restlessness.
“This is reassuring given that trends in child-care use and parental participation in the labor force are likely to remain stable,” wrote the group led by Catalina Rey-Guerra, a PhD candidate at Boston College in Massachusetts.
The study also found no evidence that socioeconomic status such as household income and mother’s educational level changed the effect of time a child spent in center-based care.
And far from worsening behavior, care centers can provide stimulation through lasting learning benefits.
“Given the existing evidence of long-term achievement benefits of early childhood care and education for children, I think our findings speak to both the direct positive effects that attending child care might have on children and also the indirect positive effects through their parents being able to participate in the workforce without the fear of any harmful effects to their child,” Rey-Guerra says.
Policies ensuring access to quality child care should be an international priority, she says.
For nearly 40 years, researchers have debated whether time in center-based child care directly causes children to develop behavioral problems.
“Disagreements have been difficult to settle because the vast majority of studies done are purely ‘correlational,’ leaving open many alternative explanations as to why children who spend large amounts of time in center care could be at risk other than center care per se,” Rey-Guerra says.
The research has also relied on just a few studies from the U.S.
“Our aim was to improve the research, providing rigorous tests of whether increasing a child’s time in center-based care leads to increases in problem behaviors, and using data from seven studies from five countries,” she continues.
Research results have so far been mixed and inconclusive, and concern has lingered after some suggested harm. A 2001 analysis, for example, found that 17% of children spending more than 30 hours per week in child care exhibited aggressive behaviors, while these behaviors were seen in only 8% of children with fewer hours.
But other research, such as a 2015 study from Norway, found that the amount of time spent in care centers by age or entry had insignificant effects on behavior. And research from Canada found that aggressive behaviors were more often exhibited by children in exclusive maternal care than those attending group day care.
Several explanations for bad behaviors have been proposed, from severing the parent-child attachment to young children’s imitation of disruptive behaviors seen in their childcare mates.
But “most of these hypotheses have not proven true,” Rey-Guerra says. “There is some evidence, however, that risk goes up if children spend continuous time, across their childhoods, in classrooms that have excessively large groups of young children, such as when centers exceed the recommended teacher-to-child ratios.” (These are 1:4 for infants, 1:7 for toddlers, and 1:8 for preschoolers.)
Carol Weitzman, MD, a pediatrician in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, cautions that there are vast differences across countries in parental leave and family policies, and therefore the experience of one is not necessarily applicable to another.
“However, that is what makes the findings of this study so robust. In no setting was the amount of child care associated with behavior problems,” says Weitzman, who was not involved in the international study.
Regardless of care settings — whether center-based, other nonparental care, or parental care — quality is key, with undesirable reactions more likely in children whose needs are not being met.
“Then you are more likely to see maladaptive and stressed behaviors such as aggression, acting out, and mood dysregulation,” Weitzman says.
She notes that preschoolers are developmentally ready to negotiate interpersonal situations such as sharing, taking turns with toys, and waiting to have immediate needs met.
“Quality child care scaffolds children so they can learn to identify and describe emotions and negotiate increasingly complex social situations.” It can also help preschoolers develop friendship and understand the experiences of others.
So why does this question about the bad effects of center-based care continue to be asked?
“One must wonder if there’s an underlying bias that children not in maternal care will fare worse and there will be threats to attachment,” Weitzman says. “When women comprise approximately 50% of the U.S. workforce, our questions should be about how to ensure quality and affordable care for all children and how to establish and enforce child-friendly parental leave policies.” She adds that the other four countries in the study all ranked higher than the U.S. in terms of paid parental and maternity leave.
“In fact, we are last when compared with 40 other developed nations,” she says.
In her view, all types of childcare settings should have the same mission and standards — all aimed at promoting optimal development in the young.