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The Daycare Question

In 1991, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development started the most comprehensive daycare study to date. Over 1300 infants were enrolled and followed from birth to age 15, with scientists tracking the kids in school, among their peers, and in their family relationships. Over the years, some patterns have emerged, but the results are often mixed and contradictory. With new ideas on how the environment shapes each of us differently, is the story of daycare more complex than we thought?

Daycare can be a stressful place. Lots of noises, constant interactions with other impulsive, emotional, toy-grabbing toddlers, and not enough soothing adult attention. Sure enough, studies have shown that kids in childcare centers release stress hormones differently. Instead of peaking in the morning and declining throughout the day (the normal pattern), cortisol levels have been found to increase into the afternoon (signaling higher anxiety) when kids are in daycare. An NICHD study released last year found that pattern still existed when those kids reached age 15.

I wasn’t surprised when I read this. My son started part-time daycare at 16 months and, especially in the beginning, I think it took a lot out of him. When I picked him up after school, he kind of collapsed, like he’d been expending a lot of energy keeping it all together without me. When he’s home, I’m right there to smooth over any bump he hits in his day, but with a ratio of three kids to one adult when he’s in daycare, it’s inevitable that he’s going to be left to fend for himself sometimes.

But when you put all the studies side by side, the story isn’t all gloomy. Findings like the ones on high cortisol levels make headlines, but they are easy to take out of context. Take another recent NICDH study, for example, showing that when kids with center-based childcare experience reached sixth grade, they were more likely to have behavioral problems. It sounded bad (and yes, it made me think about my son’s recent habit of circling any living room and declaring that every toy in it is his, even when it’s a friends house), but on second glace, it’s only one small piece of the puzzle.

First of all, the effects were very slight – far from meaning that every kid away from home is destined for the principal’s office. And the news wasn’t all bad – that same study said that kids in higher-quality care had better vocabularies and made slight gains in math in the early years.

The cortisol findings are also very slight, and they don’t say that kids are always nervous wrecks when they’re away from home. One study showed that the cortisol change is linked to classrooms of 20 kids or more and only holds true when the children have difficult relationships with their teachers. A meta-analysis (reviewing multiple studies) showed that the abnormal stress patterns were linked to poor-quality daycare centers. For high-quality centers there was little or no effect.

The mixed results mean that daycare is not “good” or “bad” for kids. Daycare’s influence depends on the child you have in front of you. This is called the “differential-susceptibility hypothesis,” and it’s springing to the front of many debates about biology and the environment, as it did recently in the popular discussion of “orchid” kids. The NICHD studies are backing this too; recently it was found that kids with difficult temperaments are the ones who suffer in low-quality daycare, but they also flourish in high-quality care, being rated as more socially competent than their easy-going peers.

So, again, I’m not planning to ditch work any time soon, because to me what matters is how daycare is working for my family. And all of this research has made me re-focus my attention to where it matters most. Even the studies that turn up with slight downsides to daycare all say that the child’s relationship with his parents is what really makes the difference. No matter how our kids spend their days (a couple of stroller rides with a nanny, a few days of preschool, or a full-time center), the time we do have together is the most powerful part of a child’s week.

It’s an amazing fact, really, that our relationship with our kids has the most lasting impact on them, regardless of how much time we clock in. So many of the other influences come out in the wash, even when they make up a huge part of a child’s life. It’s because our attachment to our kids (and theirs to us) is instinctual. It’s a hardwired system that works overtime to bond us, even when we’re apart for days on end. So we can rest easy about dropping off our little ones in the morning (and, let’s face it, for many of us it’s a reality no matter what the research says); it’s what happens when we pick them up that makes the difference.

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