One of the wrenching decisions many new parents face is whether to put their baby or toddler into child care. We've all heard the stories of babies being neglected in crowded centers, of infants catching colds and infections from other youngsters, of toddlers screaming when their mothers leave them and mothers weeping as they head off to work.
I know, lots of fathers take their children to and from day care. But our national conversation about whether day care is good or bad for children still takes place within a framework that assumes day care is a replacement for mother care, and so the question continues to boil down to this: Should mothers stay at home and take care of children or should they continue in the paid labor force after the child is born? The choice is often dictated by a family's economic situation, and our national thinking reflects that. A study by the Manhattan-based nonprofit Work and Family Institute found that 47.5 percent of people agreed that mothers who really don't need to earn money should not work, while 97 percent agreed that "it is okay for mothers to work if they really need the money." We overwhelmingly support mothers working to maintain the family's economic security.
And these mothers usually need child care for the time when they are working. The debate rages on about what effect this has on children, and it gets a new head of steam every time a study comes out that condemns a significant portion of child care as mediocre. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, attempts to take the debate to a more fruitful level in her book, "Ask The Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents."
"Our national debate about working and children has been conducted as if the answer is either yes or no, as if one path is inherently good and the other bad," she writes. "But more than four decades of research has shown that reality is not so simple. Outcomes for children depend primarily on what parents do with their children when they are together and secondarily on what happens to the children when they are away from their parents."
The most definitive work on the effects of child care has been done throughout the '90s by 25 researchers who are part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Early Child Care Research Network. Their study involved nearly 1,300 children and their mothers when it began. More recently, they have been looking at child care and the father-child relationship.
Investigators looked at associations between the amount, quality and stability of child care and interactions between mother and child when the children were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months old. Their most recent report contains a warning note: The more hours a child spends during the first three years of life in child carethe less positive are his interactions with his mother.
"We videotaped mothers and children playing with each other at four different times," says Margaret Tresch Owen, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the study's lead investigators. "We rated maternal sensitivity to her child and the child's positive engagement with the mother, the attention paid to the mother, the seeking out of mother's help. The child care findings were that when children spent more hours in child care, maternal sensitivity was slightly less positive and the child's engagement with the mother was slightly less positive."
The researchers also found that when the child care was of high quality, maternal sensitivity was higher. Owen emphasizes that the negative effects are slight, "and it may be surprising that they are so slight."
The amount of time in child care does not seem to have a consistent effect on the child's development through age 3, Owen says. But the study has found that higher quality child care consistently benefits social and cognitive development. The level of a mother's education also has an effect on a child's development.
The study is continuing to follow its original children who now are in third grade. "We're trying to understand what enhances development and what hinders development," Owen says. What would she do if she had to make the day care or stay-at-home choice? She would find good quality child care. "Better quality child care plays a beneficial role in a child's development and for the mother-child relationship," she says. "When we look at age 3 outcomes in terms of language development, cognitive development and school readiness, children are benefiting from high-quality child care experience."
The latest report suggests that longer hours of child care may diminish familiarity and the ability of mother and child to tune into each other. What's a mother to do? She should keep that information in mind, says Owen, "and know that more time with my child may benefit our relationship."
So the latest piece of information on the effect of child care underscores, once again, the importance of making sure you put your child in high-quality care. It underscores the importance of developing a national network of public and private efforts to provide high quality care and to make sure no child is warehoused. And it suggests that mothers whose children are in child care can deal with potential negative effects on closeness by making sure they spend meaningful time and are actively involved with their children, when they are together.
For working mothers and fathers, this is not just useful information. It's a bit of relief from the guilt trip so many mothers have when they take their children to day care.