Too Much Day Care May Hurt Parent-Child Relationship

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 30, 1999 (New York) -- Federally funded research indicates that mother-child interaction is "less harmonious" when children spend more than 10 hours a week in day care.

Jay Belsky, PhD, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, presented these potentially alarming child-development findings yesterday at a children's health briefing hosted by the American Medical Association (AMA). Belsky is studying more than 1,000 children and their families under research sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He has also completed a smaller study of child care in central Pennsylvania.

In the study sponsored by the NIH, Belsky tracked children to the age of 3. He says that mothers whose children receive extensive day care "are a little less sensitive in the care they provide, and even slightly more negative." By the age of 3, he reports, "children seemed to be less positively engaged when interacting with their parents." According to his Pennsylvania research, heavy use of day care during the first five years of a child's life is associated with the child's difficulty in adjusting to other youngsters and adults.

Asked why lots of day care would negatively impact parent-child interactions, Belsky tells WebMD, "It simply takes time to get to know your child well." He notes that parents and children may be somewhat exhausted when they finally have time together at the end of the working day.

Belsky explains, "Parents come home, they're tired, and it goes on day in and day out -- and all of a sudden you have, not quite two ships passing in the night, but the capacity to synchronize and coordinate is reduced because of these other stresses and strains."

He tells WebMD that mothers -- or fathers -- should take more time before returning to work after having a child. That way, he says, "they have a decent breathing interval to get to know the baby."

But another part of the problem, he adds, is that the nation's standard of child care quality is only "fair to mediocre."

J. Edward Hill, MD, AMA trustee, tells WebMD that there isn't widespread data to support Belsky's findings and that more research needs to be done. "We ought to see if more time in child care ... makes for poor inter-relationships with parents and children." He tells WebMD, "If that's true, that's a little bit frightening."

According to Belsky, parents can take steps to maximize the quality of the day care their kids receive. Parents should assess how "involved, responsive, stimulating, attentive, and available the care-giver is to the children," and when visiting a potential child care site, be on the watch against children that seem "aimless and uninvolved."

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, offers WebMD his perspective on the issue, saying, "The right kind of child care is what's critical, and I think there is no such thing as too much of the right kind of care, but there is no substitute for the role of family."

A quality child care program, Satcher tells WebMD, should "stimulate children to communicate, [and] to think early and promote positive behaviors including physical activity and nutrition."

Satcher adds that a program should "deal with the relationship among children, how children deal with anger ... and [should] communicate very well with parents."

Belsky says that he will continue to track children studied in the NIH-sponsored research through the age of 10. He said the initial findings may "play out with ... older [children] becoming resistant, uncooperative, and even defiant to parents and other adults."