Author, broadcaster and journalist Oliver James has written about the effects of day care on children in his book How Not To F*** Them Up. Read his views here
Nothing you are about to read is in any way critical of working mothers. I am strongly in favour of those who are – as long as the substitute care is adequate. It should never be forgotten that all the problems I am about to describe are just as common among children raised at home by depressed mothers. So long as the substitute care is good, it’s much better for her child that a mother works than gets depressed at home.
Second, as far as we know, the majority of children in day care do not suffer ill effects. So just because it has been your chosen method does not mean it has created problems.
The story starts with cortisol, the hormone we secrete when faced with threat, leading to ‘fight or flight’. Its levels were measured in 70 15-month-old children at home before they had ever been to day care. When levels were subsequently measured upon them entering daycare, they had doubled within an hour of the mother leaving them on the first, fifth and ninth days. Measured again five months later, whilst no longer double, they were still significantly elevated compared with the home reared baseline.
When at home, under-threes’ cortisol levels usually drop during the course of the day, but in day care, nine different studies show that they rise. While high-quality daycare does moderate this, they still do rise even under those conditions and the fact is that the vast majority of day care provision is low or medium quality. In America, only 9 per cent is high quality, something similar is true in the UK.
The effect appears to be lasting. When cortisol is measured at age 15, the longer a child was in day care when small, the higher the levels are. (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development NICHD Study of 1000 children followed from birth to age 15). Since high cortisol has been shown many times to be a correlate of all manner of problems – this is bad news.
In particular, it may help to explain why children who were in day care when under three are much more likely to be aggressive and disobedient. The more time the child was in non-maternal care of any kind during its first five years, the greater their difficultness appeared in three key respects:
• Assertiveness: they talked too much, bragged or boasted and argued a lot.
• Disobedience: they talked out of turn, were disobedient at school, defiantly talked back at school staff and disrupted school discipline.
• Aggression: they got into many fights, were prone to cruelty, bullying or meanness, physically attacked others and destroyed their personal possessions.
The definitive study of the subject (NICHD Study) showed that this was true of only 6 per cent of children mainly raised at home, rising steadily as the number of hours per week in non-maternal care increased, to 25% of children spending more than 45 hours a week away from mother. That is four times more. It is a finding that simply cannot be ignored and there are many other studies that show the same results.
In America, where day care is widespread, it looks possible that it is increasing classroom problems. A study of 3,440 children from 282 primary schools examined whether or not they had been in day care or home reared before the age of three. It showed that home-reared children became significantly worse behaved, as the proportion of their classmates who had been in day care increased. Other studies also suggest that daycare increases the risk of insecurity in relationships.
A basic point is that when the security of children to their substitute carer is tested, it is considerably less than security to parents. A review of the security of 2,867 children investigated in 40 studies, mostly of the effects of day care, showed that only 42 per cent of them were securely attached to the substitute, compared with 60 per cent to their mother and 66 per cent to their father. The larger the size of the group within which the children were cared and the higher the ratio of children to carers, the less the likelihood of secure attachment to the substitute. Also, children were far more likely to be securely attached to a substitute if they were being cared for at home than at a day care centre: 59 per cent versus 40 per cent. Since so many children are insecurely attached to the substitutes who look after them in day care, it is plausible that this would decrease their security to their mothers.
On the positive side, day care can benefit the academic performance of children from low-income homes and, when combined with parent-infant therapy, can even improve such childrens emotional well-being. But it is a myth that toddlers or babies need stimulation, education or friends. On average, an 18-month-old tries to take a toy from another child six times in a 45-minute period. It is still twice an hour when children are aged two-and-a-half. Under-threes need close supervision by a familiar, responsive adult. Other children are not needed for stimulation. Nor is it ‘good’ for under-threes’ to be educated in any way. Their mental ability results from feeling loved, not taught anything at all.
Overall, there is just no reason for a middle class parent to use day care if they can possibly find an alternative. The evidence shows unmistakably that most parents would prefer a relative and that it is indeed best if the substitute is one-on-one for an under-three, providing care at home. If that is unaffordable, a minder, preferably caring for only one other child who is older than your under three, is best.
To download a full account of Oliver James’s review of the evidence on the impact of day care, go to selfishcapitalist.com. It is also available on pages 274–99 in Oliver James’s book How Not To F*** Them Up.