All children need love and security, but their specific developmental needs change as they grow. With those changing needs, the question of day care placement emerges, along with complicating factors.
There are many sides to the day care debate, not least of which is the "maternal guilt" argument or the idea that out-of-home child care breeds infections. However, arguments that day care is or isn't essential for social and cognitive growth don't get much traction.
"Quality child care is good for children," says Jenni Evans of Children's Hospital's Parenting Center. She has taught toddlers and preschoolers, trained teachers of young children and counseled parents on early learning and development. She stresses the word "quality" in her statement.
In 2006, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released comprehensive research on the effects of different types of child care on children up to 4.5 years old. Studies about the effect of day care on babies 6 months or younger show a correlation between day care enrollment and incidences of aggressive behavior in preschool-aged kids.
The study does not suggest that day care causes behavioral issues in children, but it points to a relationship between day care and aggression. Moreover, the study breaks down child care by type, quality and quantity to show several potential outcomes.
Measuring both "regulable" (structural features of a day care facility including adult-to-child ratio and child care provider training) and "process" features (day-to-day experiences such as social interactions and activities), and using standards set by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association, the NICHD determined that many study participants between 6 months and 3 years old attended sub-par day care facilities. Thirty percent of children receive only a "fair amount" of positive caregiving in those facilities.
Mostly, these facilities failed to provide an acceptable adult- to-child ratio and group size, especially for the infant to 2-year-old age range. At this developmental stage, children need as close to a one-to-one ratio with adults as possible.
"Young children need a lot of attention in order to feel nurtured, and that is essential for their development," Evans says. "Toddlers are experiencing budding autonomy and need a safe environment in which they can explore their surroundings, and [they need] attentive caregivers."
The bottom line is that day care alone won't cause behavioral issues or stifled social growth in children. But if children attend a day care without adequate adult supervision, they might misbehave.
"If groups are too big or are not developmentally appropriate, kids will act out in aggression or display withdrawal," Evans says. "It goes back to the issue of quality child care. ... [Aggressive behavior] is not inherent in the care, but rather in the quality of the care."
Children in day care centers that meet accreditation standards not only have fewer behavior problems, according to the study, they also fare better cognitively.
Social growth begins when toddlers become more interested in their peers, but cognitive growth begins in infancy. In Evans' experience, many parents don't realize the first stage of cognitive development takes place during a baby's first year. Children who come from a "language-rich" environment tend to do better in preschool and beyond because of language and learning skills established at that age.
"Learning through play is important," Evans says. "It's not all academics." She recommends "exploration, exercise — like putting baby on her tummy — and visual experiences" to round out a baby's early education. She also emphasizes one-to-one interaction.
The study findings support Evans' advice. "More stimulation from the caregiver — asking questions, responding to vocalizations [cooing, babbling], and other forms of talking — was linked to somewhat better cognitive and language development," the study states.
The first six months in a child's life are a critical period for parent-child bonding. At this age, if the parent can choose whether to place the child in day care or stay home with the baby, Evans does not recommend day care.
According to the study, only 9 percent of children younger than 6 months are enrolled in day care. However, 54 percent of children age 4.5 go to day care. "[C]hildren 6 months of age and older who had more experience in child care centers showed somewhat better cognitive and language development through age 3 and somewhat better pre-academic skills involving letters and numbers at age 4.5 than children with less center-based child care experience," the study states.
These data also support Evans' assertions: at home, one-on-one care (maternal care, according to the study) up to age 6 months followed by a quality day care facility increases cognitive development.
The verdict on the day care vs. home care debate? It depends on the child's developmental stage, whether maternal care is an option (most studies suggest that maternal care is best) and the availability of quality care, along with more personal caveats such as finances and beliefs. Just as children are, every situation is unique.
Need help finding the right care?
For those considering day care, here are resources to aid the decision.
Agenda for Children
(8300 Earhart Blvd., Suite 201, 504-586-8509; www.agendaforchildren.org)
This Louisiana child care referral agency provides the New Orleans Guide to Early Childhood Education, a list of licensed child care options including early learning centers, schools and community resources, as well as information about programs to help cover the childcare costs.
The NICHD's Positive Caregiving Checklist
This tool can be helpful when evaluating a day care facility's quality.