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The NICHD Study of Early Child Care 1

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I.About the NICHD Study of Early Child Care

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care is the most comprehensive child care study conducted to date to determine how variations in child care are related to children's development. In 1991, a team of NICHD-supported researchers enrolled 1,364 children in the study and have now followed most of them through the first seven years of their lives. Over the past two years, the research team has presented its findings on the relationship between child care and children's development through the age of three, and will continue to analyze the information they have gathered from the 10 child care study sites across the U.S.

Prepared by Robin Peth-Pierce
Public Information and Communications Branch, NICHD

1.Child Care in the United States

Child care is becoming a fact of life for many American families. As increasing numbers of woman enter and remain in the work force after pregnancy, and more are single parents, more families are relying on non-maternal care for their infants and children. In 1975, 39% of mothers with children under six years of age worked outside the home; today, 62% of mothers do so (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Since most of these mothers return to work in their child's first three to five months of life, their children spend much of their early lives in a variety of child care situations.

In the wake of this increasing use of early child care, parents, psychologists, and policy makers began questioning the relationship between early child care and children's development, asking fundamental questions about the effects of early child care. Some child care experts have argued that child care poses risks for infants because healthy development requires care giving by a single person. Yet others have said that children may thrive in child care - of high quality. Some contend that child care arrangements do not affect development - unless the care is of very poor quality.

These differing views about the relationship between early child care and children's development have been argued for many years, but no one team or investigator had, until now, examined a large diverse group of children prospectively from birth to find out how variations in family characteristics, in child characteristics, and in child care characteristics influence developmental outcomes in the same children over several years.

Aware of the growing use of child care and the increasing public and congressional concern about this issue, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, set out to develop a comprehensive, longitudinal study about the relationship between the child care experience of children and their development over time. In 1989, the NICHD issued a request for applications (RFA), inviting the scientific community to participate with NICHD in a multi-site cooperative research endeavor, now known as the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. The goal of the study: to answer the many questions about the relationship between child care experiences and characteristics - and children's developmental outcomes. Child care characteristics include the age of entry into care, quantity of care, stability of care, quality of care, and type of care; other aspects of child care, such as the provider's education and training, the adult to child ratio, group size, safety and health issues, were also included. After a thorough scientific review of the applications, the NICHD selected a research team located at universities across the U.S. and at the NICHD, together providing multiple perspectives on and interests in child care research. This team of researchers worked cooperatively to design and implement the study, and in 1991, enrolled a very diverse sample of children and their families at 10 locations across the U.S.(See 10 Data Collection Sites).

10 Data Collection Sites
  • Arkansas
  • Orange County, California
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Pittsburgh
  • Philadelphia
  • Virginia
  • Seattle
  • North Carolina
  • Wisconsin

Scientific decisions regarding the implementation of the study were made by the Steering Committee of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. The committee includes the researchers from the data collection sites at the universities across the country, the NICHD Scientific Study Coordinator/researcher, as well as the directors of the data coordinating and analysis centers, and is chaired by an independent developmental psychologist, who is not one of the study investigators. An ad hoc Advisory Panel was also created to review the research plan and implementation.

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care is the most comprehensive child care study conducted to date in the U.S. and is characterized by a complex and detailed study design which takes into account many variables, including characteristics of the child care and the family environment. Researchers are assessing children's development using multiple methods (trained observers, interviews, questionnaires and testing) and measuring many facets of children's development (social, emotional, intellectual, language development, behavior problems and adjustment, and physical health). Finally, researchers are following the children, measuring their development at frequent intervals during their first seven years of life.

Currently, the researchers are analyzing the information they have collected to determine the relationship between child care and children's development, taking into account not only the child care environment, but the home and family, as well as individual differences among children.

2.What Questions Will the NICHD Study of Early Child Care Answer?

A major way this study contributes to our understanding of the relationship between child care and children's development is by moving beyond the global questions about whether child care is good - or bad - for children. Instead, the study focuses on how the different aspects of care - such as quantity and quality - are related to various aspects of children's development. More specifically, researchers are evaluating the relationship between child care and children's cognitive and language development, children's relationship with their mothers, and their self-control, compliance and problem behaviors, as well as peer relations and physical health.

The Study will Answer These Questions:
Which family characteristics influence how early children are placed in care, how many hours they spend in care, how many care arrangements they are experiencing over time, and the quality of care they receive?
What is the relationship between the aspects of child care that are possible to regulate and the quality of care children receive in child care?
Is the family influence on children's development diminished when children are in extensive child care - as compared to being cared for exclusively by their mothers?
Is the average number of hours that children spend in child care associated with their psychological development or their physical health?
Is the quality of the child care experience associated with the psychological or health development of children?
Are past experiences in child care predictive of later psychological or health outcomes?
Is the age of entry into care, the number of care arrangements, and type of care associated with children's psychological development or their physical health?
Is the relationship between child care and children's development different for disadvantaged and/or for minority children?
Are there certain time periods in children's lives in which child care experiences are more important for their psychological or health development?

3.The Children and Families Enrolled in the Study: Who are They?

A total of 1,364 children and their families from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds across the United States were enrolled in the study beginning in 1991. Recruited from 10 locations throughout the country, the families vary in socioeconomic background, race, and family structure. About 76% of the families are white of non-Hispanic origin, nearly 13% of families are black, 6% are of Hispanic origin, 1% are Asian/Pacific Islanders/American Indians, and 4% are other minorities, mirroring the United States population overall. This diversity allows the research team to investigate the possibility that children from different ethnic backgrounds may be affected in different ways by the different characteristics of child care(See Ethnicity of Children Enrolled).

Ethnicity of Children Enrolled %
White, non-hispanic 76.4
Black, non-hispanic 12.7
Hispanic 6.1
Asian-Pacific 1.4
American Indian 0.1
Other 3.3

In addition to ensuring that the families reflected racial diversity, the research team included mothers and their partners with a wide variety of educational attainment. About 10% of the mothers had less than a 12th grade education, slightly over 20% of the mothers had a high school diploma, one-third had some college, 20% had a college degree, and 15% had a graduate or professional degree (compared with 24%, 30%, 27%, 12% and 6%, respectively, in the U.S.. population).

In terms of socioeconomic status, families in the study had a mean income of $37,781, as compared to a mean income of $36,875 for families in the U.S.. About 20% of the study participants were receiving public assistance.

4.What Type of Child Care Was Used by Study Participants? (See Types of Child Care Used)

Type of Child Care Used (6 months of Age) %
Mother 35
Child Care Home 22
Father 13
Grandparent 10
In-home 10
Center Care 9
Other 1

Type of Child Care Used (36 months of Age) %
Center Care 30
Mother 21
Child Care Home 20
Father 13
Grandparent 8
In-home 7
Other 1

In the study, parents - rather than the researchers - selected the type and timing of child care that their children received, and, in fact, families were enrolled in the study without regard to their plans for child care. Children were placed in a wide variety of child care settings: care by fathers, other relatives, in-home care givers, child care home providers, and center-based care. These child care situations varied, from a formally trained nanny caring for a single child - to a center-based program with a group of children. Close to half of the infants were cared for by a relative when they first entered care, but there was a discernible shift towards reliance on child care centers and family day care homes during the course of, as well as after, the first year of life.

Just as there was no attempt by the study to control or select for type of care, there was no attempt to control or select for quality of care. Quality was measured in several ways and was highly variable, but since there is no study that has assessed quality of child care on a national basis, there is no way to judge precisely how representative the care in this study is of child care nationally.

5.What Information about Child Care, the Family, and the Child did Researchers Consider?

The research team collected and studied many different types of information about many characteristics of the children and their environment. The researchers assessed the child care characteristics, such as the adult to child ratio, the group size, and the child care experience of each child, including the quality of care and number of hours spent in care, the age of entry into care, as well as the number of different child care settings a child entered simultaneously and over time. Family characteristics were also assessed, including the family's economic situation, family structure (single parent vs. partnered parent), and maternal vocabulary (a proxy for intelligence). Other family variables included in the analyses were the mother's education, her psychological adjustment (as measured by a questionnaire) and her child rearing attitudes, the quality of mother-child interaction, and the extent to which the home environment contributed to the optimal development of children. Various aspects of individual children, such as their gender and their temperament, were also considered.

In this study, researchers are asking about the unique contribution that child care characteristics and experiences make to children's development - above and beyond the contributions made by the family and child characteristics. Previous studies have established that, in general, the quality of care children get in the family environment is very similar to the quality they receive in child care. Therefore, the research team focused on determining the added contribution of child care to children's development.

Because the data were analyzed many different ways to answer the many different research questions about children's development, not every variable was included in each analysis; for each summary of findings reported below, the list of relevant variables used is noted.

6.The NICHD Study of Early Child Care: What Have We Learned?

Using multiple sources of information (parents, child care providers, trained observers and testers), the research team collected detailed information about the family environment, the child care environment, and children's development, as well as their physical growth and health status over their first seven years.

Several articles about the study have been published to date in scientific journals, listed in the bibliography (appended), and other findings have been presented at scientific meetings and are now being prepared for publication. These articles, co-authored by the research team of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, cover a wide range of research questions.

The research findings can be categorized into four main categories. The first set of descriptive findings paints a picture of the care that children in the NICHD study are receiving. This includes a look at the "regulable" characteristics of care, like the adult to child ratio, the patterns of care used during the first year of life, and child care for children in poverty. Other categories include the role of family for children in child care, child care and its relationship to children's development, and child care and children's relationship with their mothers. Within these categories are findings related to the extent to which child care experiences are associated with different developmental outcomes for low income children, as compared to more affluent children, and for minority children, as compared to white, non-Hispanic children. There are also comparisons of current and past child care experiences as predictors of children's performance or mother-child interaction.

Child Research Net would like to thank The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the United States, its Director, Dr. Duane Alexander, and the investigators of the study (see list of investigators) for permitting reproduction of this article on the CRN web site.

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care, originally published as a booklet, was prepared by an NICHD staff writer, Ms. Robin Peth Pierce, based on scientific presentations and publications (see list of scientific publications) and after consultation with Dr. Sarah L. Friedman, Project Scientist and Scientific Coordinator of The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. This is an U.S. government publication for the consumption of the general public and Child Research Net does not hold the copyright of this Study.


Information on the booklet:
Name of NICHD Staff Writer: Robin Peth Pierce
Title: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care
Publisher's name: NICHD
Published city: Bethesda, Maryland
Published year: 1998
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