Day Care Can Affect Mother-Child Relationships

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 8, 1999 (Atlanta) -- The general use of day care has a small but definable effect on the relationship between mother and child, according to the results of an observational study published in the November issue of Developmental Psychology.

The study found that using day care -- and using more of it -- did correspond to decreased bonding during interaction between mothers and children, compared to relationships with little or no day care. But within the group studied, the quality of day care and the levels of education, income, and personal factors such as separation anxiety were stronger predictors of bonding than simply whether a child was in day care.

The study is the largest of its kind to date, observing about 1,300 mother-child pairings from birth to age 3 at 10 day care centers around the country. Nearly 25% of the participants were nonwhite, and 14% of the mothers were single; 53% worked full time, 23% worked part time, and 24% did not work. Education levels ranged from not graduating from high school to post-graduate degrees.

The use of day care averaged 24 hours per week from birth to 6 months of age, 34 hours per week from ages 7 to 24 months, and 33 hours per week from ages 25 to 36 months.

To reach the study's findings, mothers and children were evaluated by videotape during playtime at 6, 15, 24, and 36 months of age. "The linkage we found is small but consistent, which makes it statistically significant," principal investigator Margaret Tresch Owen, PhD, tells WebMD. Owen is an associate professor of child psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The study showed that children who spent more hours in day care than their peers had better bonding relationships if the quality of day care was higher and the child lived in a more educated and affluent household.

"The experiences showed how responsive the mother is and how engaged the child is, and the patterns remained consistent over time," says co-investigator Margaret Burchinal, PhD, director of statistics and design at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"We looked at how a parent supports and encourages the child instead of being intrusive at play, and how in tune the parent is with the child's needs," she says.

That, says Owen, should come as some relief to parents, as the use of day care increases. According to 1992 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of women with infants under age 1 were working outside the home and used some form of "nonmaternal child care."

The study also found that differences in maternal bonding did not affect a child's social or intellectual development. Quality of day care, though, was linked to differences in the development of language skills.

Based on the overall findings that day care can have an effect on interaction, the authors recommend that parents strive to carve out quality time with their children, particularly during infant years.