Study finds that child care does impact mother-child interaction

November 06, 1999

Quality of Child Care, Maternal Education, Maternal Depression and Child's Temperament Also Affect Mother-Child Bond

(Washington, DC) -- The more hours a child spends during the first three years of life in nonmaternal care the less positive the child's interactions with his/her mother, reports a new study, published in the November issue of Developmental Psychology published by the American Psychological Association.

Based on data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care, a longitudinal study of approximately 1,300 children, the authors looked at associations between the amount, quality and stability of child care and mother-child interactions when the children were 6, 15, 24 and 36 months old. Families and their children were recruited from 10 research sites across the United States. Twenty-four percent of the recruited families were members of an ethnic minority.

According to the findings, children who regularly spend time in nonmaternal care have "somewhat less positive" interactions with their mothers than children who spend less or no time in nonmaternal care.

Variation in the number of hours in child care was related to both the mother's behavior toward her children and the children's positive engagement of the mother in their interactions. The findings may indicate that longer hours of child care are associated with some diminished familiarity and less ability of mother and child to be "in tune" with each other.

Although the setting of the care (home/center/relative's home) did not alter the results, the quality of the care did. Higher quality child care was associated with increased maternal sensitivity. The authors' submit two possible explanations for this finding: (1) higher quality care settings may provide mothers with positive role models for involved, sensitive interactions with their child, and, (2) the greater maternal sensitivity is a function of the effect of the higher quality child care on the child's emerging verbal skills, behavior compliance and social competence.

The authors point out that the findings of a small negative association between mother-child interaction and hours of care and a small positive association with quality of care may suggest that linkages with child care are more a product of mothers who use child care than a consequence of the care itself. The findings may indicate that mothers who are less sensitive to their infants' signals or who have children who are less engaging use child care for more hours. The findings may also suggest that mothers who are more sensitive choose higher quality care for their children.

In addition, to put the issue of child care quality and stability into an appropriate context, the authors looked at other predictors of mother-child interactions and found that maternal education was a much stronger predictor of maternal sensitivity than either child care hours or the quality of that care.

But, a child's temperament and maternal depressive symptoms were found to be similar to the use of and quality of child care in terms of their strength in predicting mother-child interactions.

Because of its large sample size, the NICHD study data allowed researchers to detect relatively small associations between child care and children. "The meaningfulness of these effects rests on the extent to which small degrees of difference in material sensitivity or the child's engagement with the mother relate to meaningful differences in children's developmental outcomes at these and later ages," the authors write.
Article: "Child Care and Mother-Child Interaction in the First 3 Years of Life," NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, Developmental Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 6.

Full Text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or on the web beginning October 29 at

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Early Child Care Research Network, consisting of 25 participating investigators, conducted this study. A list of the 25 investigators is attached.

The American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
Early Child Care Research Network

Mark Appelbaum, Vanderbilt University

Dee Ann Batten, Vanderbilt University

Jay Belsky, Pennsylvania State University

Cathryn Booth, University of Washington

Robert Bradley, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Celia A. Brownell, University of Pittsburgh

Margaret Burchinal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Bettye Caldwell, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Susan B. Campbell, University of Pittsburgh

Alison Clarke-Stewart, University of California, Irvine

Martha Cox, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Sarah L. Friedman, NICHD, Bethesda, Maryland

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University

Aletha Huston, University of Texas at Austin

Elizabeth Jaeger, Temple University

Bonnie Knoke, Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle, NC

Nancy Marshall, Wellesley College

Kathleen McCartney, University of New Hampshire

Marion O'Brien, University of Kansas

Margaret Tresch Owen, University of Texas at Dallas

Deborah Phillips, National Research Council, Washington, DC

Robert Pianta, University of Virginia

Susan Spieker, University of Washington

Deborah Lowe Vandell, University of Washington-Madison

Marsha Weinraub, Temple University

American Psychological Association

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