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A New Spin on Day Care

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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.

To help narrow the gap in quality, the U.S. Department of Education is urging school systems to develop more pre-kindergarten programs using Title 1 funds, says Fran Bond, head of the U.S. Department of Education's "Ready to Learn" program.

In the past year, only 17% of schools spent money on preschool services -- yet the importance is very evident, Bond tells WebMD. "In the last 10 years or so, an extraordinary amount of research has told us very clearly that children, even in the earliest months of their lives, have an extraordinary ability to learn."

At what age do children benefit most from a structured day care environment?

For Prevosti, day care proved to be a surprisingly positive experience for her very young child. She decided to keep him there -- even after she hired live-in help. "Those early years were more for safety ... a controlled environment where he was less likely to topple down a flight of stairs if a gate is left open," she tells WebMD.

But socialization proved to be very beneficial as well, she says. "Being in a group setting with one teacher for four or five children forces them to communicate their needs more effectively," she says. "His speech skills improved so much ... compared to his friends who stayed at home."

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