Good child care not harmful, has benefits, but poor care worrisome, U.S. study reveals

March 13, 2002

CHAPEL HILL - When mothers are sensitive to their youngest children's needs at home, time spent in child care appears to have no ill effects on family attachments or relationships, a leading psychologist said at a Congressional briefing Wednesday. In fact, high-quality care appears to boost children's development somewhat, and research evidence suggests it improves mother-child interactions slightly.

Dr. Martha Cox, director of the Center for Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described the largest, most rigorous study ever done on child care's effects to Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) and the Society for Research in Child Development in Washington, D.C.

The investigation is the continuing National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-sponsored Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.

"We have no compelling evidence that we are undermining the role of the family by supporting high-quality child care," Cox said. "In fact, in addition to the important support for maternal employment and increased family income, there may even be some positive learning that families accrue from involvement with high-quality child care."

Cox made her presentation with Drs. Deborah Phillips, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and Robert Pianta, professor of education at the University of Virginia. The three are principal investigators of the 10-center study, which was designed chiefly to determine the effects of child care on children and their families.

Mother-child interactions are somewhat less positive when children are in child care for more hours, Cox said. On average, children are less secure if they are in care for longer hours, and if their mothers are not sensitive and responsive to them.

The study, which has lasted 13 years, has involved following some 1,200 children from soon after birth into their early school years and evaluating carefully the care they received and their social and intellectual development. Trained observers also recorded mother-child and caregiver-child interactions for analysis, while others assessed the subjects in various ways as they aged.

Among the main findings was that higher-quality child care benefited children's development, Cox said. While that seems obvious, the study documented more rigorously than ever before that quality makes a difference. Previously, some people had argued that boosting quality was a needless expense.

Another key finding was that the more children an individual caregiver oversaw, the lower the quality of care, she said. More education and better training among center staffs also benefited children when compared with less education and training.

Children who spent more time in center-based care, as opposed to home-based care by people other than parents, received significantly higher scores on assessments of early learning and language development, Pianta said. However, they also were rated by mothers and teachers as not behaving quite as well as they should have. The importance of that finding, if any, remains unclear and controversial even among the researchers.

Not surprisingly, children from poor families tended to receive lower quality child care and less support and attention unless they attended subsidized centers with better-educated and trained staff.

About half of U.S. children received care considered moderately or highly positive, the researchers concluded.

The other half did not, and about 9 percent of children in the study received little of the warmth and stimulation necessary for optimal development. Those results are a concern since the majority of U.S. children are in child care before starting school.

"When we see poor quality care in the United States, we are not generally seeing abuses or hostile caregivers," Phillips said. "Rather, we are seeing the absence of positive and supportive interactions - caregivers who more often than not fail to respond to children's bids for attention and affection and who make few attempts to engage the children in social or learning activities."

In the study, the 5.5 percent of children in classes not meeting any quality standards scored 14 percentiles lower in school readiness than the almost 25 percent of children in classes meeting all the standards, she said.
Note: Cox can be reached via the Marriott hotel in Bethesda, Md., (301) 897-5600 or On Monday, March 18, she will return to her Chapel Hill office, (919) 966-3509. Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596

UNC News Services

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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