The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Getting the Story Straight on Daycare

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Every few months, the media reports glowingly on some new study that supposedly demonstrates that paid childcare is a neutral decision for parents—that is, daycare doesn’t seem to impact children one way or the other in the long-term. Even more glowing are the accounts of research demonstrating that children actually benefit from daycare in an increase in social and cognitive skills. But in a recent analysis for National Affairs, Carrie Lukas and Steven E. Rhoads offer a refreshingly honest examination of the existing research on daycare, and also the proposed policy that accompanies it.

The authors begin their essay with a sympathetic admission that “Raising a child in America is more expensive today than it has ever been . . . and supporting a family often requires two incomes.” And even if a family doesn’t require two streams of income, “many women wish to use their educations to pursue lucrative, fulfilling careers.” But the authors also remind the reader that “good things tend to come with tradeoffs”—in this case, the tradeoff is that a mother in the workforce must employ some kind of outside care for her children. Parents are justifiably concerned about such decisions, which “are made all the more difficult by a lack of reliable research on daycare. . . . few are willing to take a hard look.”

Indeed, “[e]arlier studies of daycare, even the the early 2000s, raised serious concerns about the greater risk of ‘externalizing’ behavior—such as neediness, disobedience, and bullying—from children’s early and prolonged exposure to commercial daycare.” But today’s researchers “tend to emphasize how negative outcomes fade over time and are balanced out by cognitive gains for daycare children compared to those cared for at home.” Lukas and Rhoads point specifically to one of the most significant and recent studies, wherein the researchers conclude that “on average,” any negative impacts of first-year maternal employment “are offset by positive effects.” Lukas and Rhoads point out, however, that “the details of the study paint a more complicated picture.” When mothers went back to work made a world of difference. The study’s data indicated that when women returned to work when their baby was under three months old—and 70% of the women studied did just that—their children displayed more externalizing behavior. Also significant is that children of mothers who worked part-time displayed less such behavior than did children whose mothers worked full-time. 

Part of the complication in studying the effects of daycare is due, the authors write, to methodological challenges. The best research comes from controlled experiments; however, parents will never (and should never) consent “to randomly assign their children to home care or institutional daycare.” Instead, the dataset most often used for such studies is the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development—a useful study, but observational in nature. 

The authors point out an alternative source of data, however, in various research hailing from Quebec, which in 1997 “introduced full-day kindergarten for all five-year-olds and heavily subsidized daycare for four-year-olds” and, since then, has extended such subsidies to infants beginning at birth. The studies using this research have painted a far less rosy picture of daycare. One 2009 article, for example, concludes, “We report striking evidence that children’s outcomes have worsened since the program was introduced.” Another, this one published in March 2014 by the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network, focused on age of children in the program, and concluded that “The estimates indicate that on average, children who gain access to subsidized child care at earlier ages experience significantly larger negative impacts on motor-social developmental scores, self-reported health status and behavioral outcomes including physical aggression and emotional anxiety.” A follow-up to this study in 2015 found that these negative effects “persisted and even increased into the teen years.” Furthermore, the researchers found that children exposed to such subsidized child care showed a greater incidence of criminal behavior as teens. 

“So what,” ask Lukas and Rhoads, “could explain these profound, lasting negative effects of daycare?” One explanation is the stress hormone cortisol. In a meta-analysis of nine daycare studies, Professors Harriet Vermeer and Marinus van IJzendoorn found “that at daycare children display higher cortisol levels compared to the home setting.” And this rise in cortisol levels is disturbing, because, as another study details, “Elevated cortisol levels are often interpreted as boding ill for physical and emotional health.” 

Lukas and Rhoads conclude that “[t]aken together, the studies on the Quebec child-care program and on cortisol levels show negative effects from daycare at the time of children’s daycare experience as well as lasting negative outcomes that persist into the teen years, which certainly calls into question the commonly offered conclusion that daycare appears to be ‘neutral,’ with positive and negative effects cancelling each other out.” The authors suggest that instead of subsidizing care which produces such ill effects, “policymakers ought to focus on providing more support for parents, particularly those with lower incomes, to make it easier for them to raise their children based on their own preferences.” And polls reveal that most parents actually believe that it is better for one parent to remain home with the children, and also that 80% of young mothers would prefer to do so.

“Good decision-making on the part of both families and policy­-makers,” write the authors, “depends on clear-eyed, honest assessments of the best scientific research—no matter how difficult the conclusions may be.” The well-being of children is too precious a result to risk with faulty data and analysis. 

(Carrie Lukas and Steven E. Rhoads, “The Uncomfortable Truth about Daycare,” National Affairs 28 [summer 2016]: 83-94.)