Kids at Day Care: Mom Still No. 1

Study Shows Toddlers Form Most Secure Attachments to Their Mothers

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 17, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

May 17, 2006 -- Moms with small children in day care may worry that their kids will develop stronger attachments to paid caregivers than to them, but their fears are unfounded, new research finds.

The analysis of 40 studies involving nearly 3,000 toddlers showed that while the young children perceived many similarities between their moms and day care providers, they were much more likely to form the most secure attachments to their mothers.

'Not Mother Substitutes'

The researchers sought to identify factors in the relationship between child and paid caregiver, which contributed to the child's overall sense of security and well-being. Among the major findings:

  • Secure attachments to caregivers are more commonly seen in home-based, rather than center-based, child care facilities.
  • Girls are more likely than boys to develop strong bonds with their day care providers.
  • Stability is an important predictor of attachment. The longer a child had been enrolled in a day care facility, the more likely it is that he or she will develop secure relationships with caregivers.
  • A child's relationship to a caregiver was much more strongly tied to the adult's treatment of all the kids they cared for as a group.

Although it is important for children to bond with their day care providers, researcher Lieselotte Ahnert, of Germany's Free University of Berlin, says these providers should not be seen as "mother substitutes."

Home-Based Care

The finding that children bond with caregivers more easily in smaller, home-based settings than in larger, center-based ones does not surprise early child development researcher Joan Vondra, PhD.

The University of Pittsburgh psychology professor found a neighbor who shared her child-rearing values to care for her two children when they were little. The neighbor was looking for a way to stay at home with her own kids, and the arrangement worked out well for everyone, Vondra says.

"She has become, in essence, a member of our extended family, and her two children are like cousins to my own children," she tells WebMD. "My children (now 13 and 10) consider it a treat to spend time with her and her children."

Rhonda Brewster's 10-month-old son Will has attended the same home-based day care since he was 6 weeks old. Far from feeling threatened by the close bond he has developed with his caregiver, Brewster says she's thrilled to know that he is happy and well cared for.

"I don't feel guilty when I leave him, because I know he feels secure," the Huntsville, Ala. mother of two says. "I am leaving him with someone who genuinely loves him and treats him like one of her own children."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Ahnert, L. Child Development, May/June, 2006; vol 77, online edition. Lieselotte Ahnert, professor for developmental psychology, University of Applied Science, Magdeburg-Stendal and Free University, Berlin. Joan I. Vondra, PhD, professor of applied developmental psychology, University of Pittsburgh. Rhonda Brewster, Huntsville, Ala.
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