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 

The Pass-Around Baby

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Life can be hard for young children cared for by one stranger on Mondays and Wednesdays, a different stranger on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and yet a third stranger on Fridays. To clarify just how hard it is for children to deal with such shifting child-care arrangements, researcher Taryn W. Morrissey recently examined “associations between changes in the number of concurrent, nonparental child-care arrangements and changes in children’s behavioral outcomes at 2 and 3 years of age.”

Scrutinizing longitudinal data from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, Morrissey traces a troubling pattern. In particular, her analysis exposes a clear statistical linkage between “increases in number of [non-parental childcare] arrangements” on the one hand, and “significant increases in problem behavior and decreases in prosocial behaviors among 2- and 3-year-old children,” on the other. Whether relying on caregivers or mothers to report the symptoms, Morrissey discerns the same pattern, as increases in the number of non-parental child-care arrangements consistently translate into “increased . . . internalizing problems . . . and marginal increases in externalizing problems” among children in multiple child-care arrangements. Morrissey concludes further that quality of child-care makes no apparent difference in amplifying or minimizing these effects.

Indeed, the problematic outcomes of placing children with multiple non-parental caregivers look “modest by conventional statistical standards.” Morrissey concedes that the effects may even be “too small to observe on an average day.” However, she insists that “increased behavior problems and decreased prosocial behaviors” of the sort documented in this study may negatively affect “children’s overall social adjustment, school readiness, and parent and teacher stress over time.”

Furthermore—for those inclined toward a de minimis interpretation of her findings—Morrissey stresses “the conservative nature of the statistical models” she employed and the low-risk character of her sample, a sample that “averages higher income and education and contains lower proportions of minorities than the general population.”

Morrissey recognizes the broad implications of her findings at a time when “about 15% of young children are in two or more child-care arrangements during a typical week, often experiencing a combination of formal (daycare center, preschool, or regulated family child care) and informal (relative, nanny, or babysitter) care” and when “multiple, concurrent arrangements are particularly common among children with employed mothers (22% – 44%).”

Feminists might resist the notion that maternal employment has hurt young children by putting them into multiple non-parental care arrangements. Perhaps they need to study carefully the part of Morrissey’s findings that note: “Surprisingly, an increase in number of [child-care] arrangements was associated with an increase in disruptive behaviors among girls . . . whereas there was no association among boys.” In other words, compared to boys, “girls are more vulnerable to the effects of arrangement multiplicity.”

Americans who care about the well-being of young children—especially of young girls—have reason to be concerned about how maternal employment has multiplied the number of child-care arrangements these children experience.

(Taryn W. Morrissey, “Multiple Child-Care Arrangements and Young Children’s Behavioral Outcomes,” Child Development80.1 [2009]: 59–76.)