Is Daycare Doing Irreparable Damage to Your Child?

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The New York Times cites “a powerful new study” proving that “high-quality childcare” is beneficial for parents and children alike. But what exactly constitutes “high-quality childcare”? And what makes it so beneficial?

The Times based their argument on the study of two North Carolina childcare programs for low-income families, The Abecedarian Project, developed for children ages 8 weeks to 5 years old, and CARE: The Carolina Approach to Responsive Education for preschoolers. Interested in knowing more about what constitutes “high-quality childcare” for children as little as 2 months old, I dug into the Abecedarian Project, a study that took children from primarily low-income, African-American single mother households and enrolled them into:

full-time, high-quality educational intervention in a childcare setting from infancy through age 5. Each child had an individualized prescription of educational “games” incorporated into the day. These activities focused on social, emotional, and cognitive areas of development but gave particular emphasis to language.

The program admitted 14 infants, ages 8 weeks to 12 months, per year, all of whom were managed by four teachers and one supervisor. A schedule from the original pamphlet advertising the program in the 1970s indicates that “older infants” received 30 minutes of 1:1 play with a teacher in the morning, up to one hour in the afternoon if they woke early from their nap, and a seemingly fragmented 45 minutes at the end of the day while children were being picked up and staff were leaving. Children were given two hours per day of free play, one hour of which was outside.

How one teacher could provide individualized attention to up to four children at a time is beyond me. This is most likely why they employed “curriculum games” for even the youngest of infants. Parents today might recognize one such “game”: a mirror propped in front of a firm pillow for the baby to lie on and stare at, to encourage head lifting and, of course, tummy time.

Whether or not the schedule has since been altered in accordance with the latest studies on play and outdoor time is questionable. Most daycare facilities permit roughly the same minimal amount of daily outdoor time recommended by doctors. While North Carolina state law permits daycare centers to establish their own outdoor time limits, it is worth noting that only 30% of care centers across America fulfill the one-hour minimum on a daily basis.

Abecedarian researchers would go on to compare this set of children with those who stayed at home until age three and then enrolled in traditional preschool at intervals throughout childhood and into adulthood. The study cited by the Times is the latest in this series. It does confirm that recipients of “high-quality childcare” are slightly better educated and tend to earn more than their peers who did not receive such care. However, I was curious to know more about participants’ quality of life beyond their ability to earn a paycheck. While the study addressed factors including obesity and risk for future coronary disease, it did not address psychological health.

A growing number of experts are concluding that we sacrifice emotional and social development for the sake of the cognitive. Current research also ties the risk of developing depression and anxiety with a lack of a motherly presence in the first three years of life. After digging deeper I found a previous study conducted on the same program in 2007 revealing that 26% of participants “met screening criteria for depression” at age 21. A 2012 study reported no differences in criminal activity between those who had received “high-quality childcare” and test subjects who did not. Roughly one-quarter of the participants in each group had been convicted of either a misdemeanor or a felony by age 25.

The definition of “high-quality childcare” then looks much like anything you’d find at your local daycare center. A questionable teacher-infant ratio; long, over-scheduled days filled with activities dubbed “curricular”; limited free play and even more limited outside time. Long-term studies indicate no impact on future criminal behavior and a significant chance of developing depression and anxiety as an adult.

The financial gains of participants are even questionable. The Times’ headline declared that this kind of child care specifically enriches boys. Yet, they base this claim on the 37 male participants who remained in the project, parenthetically noting that their financial success “was not very precisely estimated.” I suppose that’s better than ignoring the statistic altogether, as was the case when it came to mental health and criminal activity.

Interestingly, the researcher behind the vague statistics made a rather ironic observation in a recent interview somehow overlooked by the Times. Programs, he said, need “empathy, mother love, substitute mother love and encouraging the parent.”

In her book Being There, Erica Komisar notes:

…daycare is the most problematic, and yet it is the most widely used method of childcare in the Western world. …Daycare may be cost-effective (sometimes), but it is not the best choice for the health and well-being—and specifically the emotional development—of our children. …a child’s participation in group daycare before she is two increases the chance she will develop other behavioral issues later in childhood…,

Komisar has seen patients dealing with “anxiety, depression, social difficulties, lack of resilience to stress, eating disorders and addictions” that can all be tied back to “a mother’s absence or inattentiveness” early in life. Her observations are confirmed by research.

The Abecedarian Project is rightly noted for its emphasis on keeping low-income children healthy, well-fed and perhaps even well-instructed. This is a remarkable gift for children living in poverty. However, no daycare center can possibly fulfill an infant’s emotional and psychological needs, “high-quality” or not. You can give a child the best food, the cleanest environment, and the most enriching activities in the world; none of that can replace a mother’s love and attention. And, as even the Abecedarian researcher concluded, it can’t outweigh it either.