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A New Spin on Day Care

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 22, 2000 -- When she put her 6-month-old child in day care, it was a quick fix, Linda Prevosti says. "Our helper at home had quit, but I wanted to work two days a week," she tells WebMD. "It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement."

But it turned into more than that, and not out of necessity, but by choice.

Like Prevosti, many more moms are opting to work after giving birth, according to U.S. Census statistics. In 1976, only 31% of new moms were in the workforce. But of the 3.6 million women who became new moms in 1997 and 1998, the percentage of new moms entering the workforce doubled as about three out of five returned to jobs within one year.

Who is taking care of their children? Data from The Urban Institute shows that in 1997, 32% of children under 5 were enrolled in day care centers -- whereas only 6% were placed with nannies and baby sitters. Parents, relatives, and other home-based providers are watching over the remaining 65% of preschoolers.

But what's best for the children ... the personal attention, with attention being the key word, provided by mom, a nanny, or a family member? Or if parents choose day care, is it always a compromising situation for the child? Well, not necessarily, and sometimes day care, it turns out, can actually have some benefits, if the facility meets certain criteria. What kind of criteria?

Since 1991, the National Institutes of Health has been conducting the most comprehensive study to date evaluating child care experiences and children's early development -- following 1,100 newborns in 10 cities across the country for the first 10 years of life, says Sarah Friedman, PhD, project scientist and scientific coordinator for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"We're finding that the better the quality of child care, the better outcome for children ... they're doing better regardless of what their home environment has given them," Friedman tells WebMD. "We're also finding that for cognitive and language outcome ... being in day care promotes cognitive and language development more than any other type of care. This may be because of the more structured teaching environment."

In their analysis, Friedman's researchers looked at child-staff ratios, group sizes, caregiver training, caregiver education, and children's development at 24 and 36 months. "We found that most schools did not meet all standards," she tells WebMD. For just 30% of children, the care was "somewhat" positive; for 9% it was "highly" positive, her report shows.

They also found that children in moderate-income families seem to suffer the most, typically because their options are limited. What they can afford may be low quality -- whether it's provided by a family member or a home-based day care provider, Friedman says. Affluent families and low-income families fare better, the first for obvious economic reasons, and the second largely because of child care subsidies given to poor families that allow them access to the better programs.

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