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The NICHD Study of Early Child Care 3

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3. Child Care and the Mother-Child Relationship

6) The Relationship between Child Care and Mother-Child Attachment
The research team examined several child care variables, including the amount of care, the age of entry into care, and the type of care, to determine how these factors were related to infants' attachment to their mothers. Attachment is the sense of trust the infant has in his or her mother.

The research team found that child care in and of itself neither adversely affects nor promotes the security of infants' attachment to their mothers at the 15-month-age point. Researchers measured infants' attachment to their mothers using a standard 30-minute procedure of separating and reuniting the mother and child.

Certain child care conditions, in combination with certain home environments, did increase the probability that infants would be insecurely attached to their mothers. Infants who received either poor quality of care, more than 10 hours per week of care, or were in more than one child care setting in the first 15 months of life, were more likely to be insecurely attached, only if their mothers were lower in sensitivity. For example, when both the mothers and the child care providers fell in the bottom 25% of the sample in terms of providing sensitive care to the child, the likelihood that the children would be securely attached was only 45%, in contrast to those with more sensitive mothers and care givers, among whom 62% were securely attached.

7) Child Care and the Quality of the Mother-Child Interaction
In addition to analyzing children's attachment to their mothers, the research team also studied the relationship between child care and the mother-child interaction, or interchanges between the mother and child. Maternal behaviors that were studied pertained to mothers' sensitivity, positive involvement and negativity. Children's behaviors were observed to assess their involvement. Researchers analyzed child care quality, quantity and family characteristics (maternal education and income) to determine their relationship to the mother-child interaction when the children were 6, 15, 24, and 36 months of age.

Mother-child interaction was evaluated by videotaping mother and child together during play and at home and observing the mother's behavior toward the child to see how attentive, responsive, positively affectionate or restrictive the mother was when faced with multiple competing tasks (i.e., monitoring child, talking with interviewer).

Researchers found that the quality and amount of child care had a small but statistically significant relationship to the quality of the mother-child interaction. An increased amount of child care was modestly associated with less sensitive and less engaged mother-child interactions. Throughout the first three years of the children's lives, spending more hours in nonmaternal care was associated with somewhat less positive behaviors of the mother toward the child. Toddlers in longer hours of child care were slightly less engaged with their mothers.

The association that was found between the full history of the quantity of care and mother-child interaction led the research team to ask if the quantity of care in the earlier time periods were associated with subsequent qualities of mother-child interaction. The researchers found that more hours of care in the first 6 months of life were associated with lower maternal sensitivity and lower child positive engagement at 36 months. However, a combination of family and home characteristics, including income, maternal education, two parent family status, maternal separation anxiety, and maternal depression, predicted the quality of mother-child interaction more than the children's experiences in child care.

Higher quality child care (positive provider-child interaction) modestly predicted greater involvement and sensitivity by the mother (at 15 and 36 months) and greater positive engagement of the child with the mother (at 36 months). Low-income mothers using full-time higher quality care had higher positive involvement at 6 months than low-income mothers not using care or those using lower-quality full-time care.

4. Child Care Characteristics and Children's Developmental Outcomes

8) Child Care and Compliance, Self-Control and Problem Behavior
Child Care Characteristics (quality, quantity, age of entry into care, type and stability) and family characteristics were studied to determine how they were related to children's self-control, compliance and problem behavior. Researchers found that characteristics of the family - particularly the sensitivity of the mother - were stronger predictors of children's behavior than their child care experience.

Researchers determined that such child care characteristics were, at best, modest predictors of children's problem behavior, compliance and self-control. Child care quality was the most consistent predictor of children's behavior. Children in care receiving more sensitive and responsive attention had fewer caregiver-reported problems at age two and three.

Although more hours in care during the first two years predicted greater caregiver-reported problems at age two, these effects disappeared by age three. Children who spent more time in group arrangements with more than three other children had fewer behavior problems (as reported by the caregiver) and were observed to be more cooperative in child care.

9) Child Care and Children's Cognitive and Language Development in the First Three Years of Life
Summary Table of Findings, Child Care and Children's Development
Attachment Parent-Child Relationships Cooperation
Problem Behaviors Cognitive Development and School Readiness Language Development
Quality + + +
Type + +
  * Results after taking into account all family and child variables.
+ Consistent effects
● Effects under some conditions

Another main goal of the study was to determine if child care characteristics (quality, number of hours in care, type, stability) predict children's cognitive and language development, as well as school readiness. Children's cognitive development and school readiness were measured using standardized tests; language development was assessed using standardized tests and maternal reports. Quality child care was defined as positive care giving and language stimulation - how often care givers spoke to children, asked, and responded to children's questions.

The quality of child care over the first three years of life is consistently but modestly associated with children's cognitive and language development. The higher the quality of child care (more positive language stimulation and interaction between the child and provider), the greater the child's language abilities at 15, 24, and 36 months, the better the child's cognitive development at age two, and the more school readiness the child showed at age three.

However, again, the combination of family income, maternal vocabulary, home environment, and maternal cognitive stimulation were stronger predictors of children's cognitive development at 15, 24, and 36 months of age and of language development at 36 months.

In terms of cognitive development, researchers found no benefit for children in exclusive care by their mother. More frequently than not, children in exclusive maternal care scored on cognitive and language measures similarly to children in child care. The few differences that did emerge on the cognitive and language outcomes between children in exclusive maternal care and children in child care showed that high quality care child care provided an advantage and low quality child care a disadvantage in comparison to exclusive maternal care. Among children in care for more than 10 hours per week, those in center care, and to a lesser extent, those in child care homes, performed better on cognitive and language measures than children in other types of care, when the quality of the care giver-child interaction was taken into account. Child care experiences did not predict differently the cognitive, language or school readiness level of children from varying income groups or ethnic backgrounds.

10) Characteristics of Child Care That Can Be Regulated and Child Development
Another objective of the study was to determine the relationship between the "regulable" aspects of child care centers and children's development. The center care regulable aspects included in the analysis were the child-staff ratio, the group size, teacher training, and the teacher education, as recommended by professional organizations of educators, pediatricians and public health professionals.

The research team found that most child care center classes did not meet all four recommended guidelines for child-staff ratios, group sizes, teacher training, and teacher education. Children in centers that met more guidelines had better language comprehension and school readiness at 36 months of age. They also had fewer behavior problems at 24 and 36 months. Children in classes that met none of the guidelines fell below average in their performance on these tests.

III. Summary

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care has enrolled more than 1,300 children and followed most of them through the first seven years of their lives to determine how variations in child care are related to their development. Scientific papers to date focus on the children's first three years of life. The child care settings children were placed in were selected by their families, based on the availability and affordability of child care in their communities; children were not randomly assigned to different types, amounts, or quality of care. The families were representative of the U.S. population as a whole on many demographic features.

In the NICHD study, and in the families across the nation, the quality of the family circumstances and family environment strongly predict care they choose for their children. Therefore, the research team focused on determining the unique contribution of child care to the development of children, over and above the important and well-recognized association between family characteristics and circumstances and children's developmental outcomes.

The findings from this study will provide some answers to the many questions about child care. We now have a picture of what child care looks like for many American families - a snapshot of how often and how early children are placed in care, as well as the type of child care arrangements many families use today. The researchers have also looked at the relationship between family characteristics and children's development for children in extensive child care - and those in nearly exclusive maternal care. They have assessed whether family characteristics predict the child care experience their infants and toddlers receive. Finally, the researchers have examined the child care characteristics and their relationship to children's intellectual development, language development, and school readiness, as well as the association between child care characteristics and the mother-child relationship.

The research team looked for the added - or subtracted - value of child care to children's development, above and beyond the contribution made by the family and individual child characteristics. In general, family characteristics and the quality of the mother's relationship with the child were stronger predictors of children's development than child care factors. This held true for families whether their children were in extensive child care or cared for primarily by their mothers.

Researchers found that some child care characteristics or experiences do contribute, though only slightly, to children's development, as can be seen in the Summary Table of Findings to date from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. The observed effects of child care were generally modest in size, but not insignificant.

Higher quality care was found to be related to:
  • Better mother-child relationships
  • Lower probability of insecure attachment in infants of mothers low in sensitivity
  • Fewer reports of children's problem behaviors
  • Higher cognitive performance of children in child care
  • Higher children's language ability
  • Higher level of school readiness
The converse is also true. Lower quality care predicted:
  • Less harmonious mother-child relationships
  • A higher probability of insecure mother-child attachment of mothers who are already low in sensitivity to their children
  • More problem behaviors, lower cognitive and language ability and lower school readiness scores
Higher quantity of care or a history of more hours in child care was associated with:
  • Less harmonious mother-child interaction
  • More reported problem behaviors when the children were two years old
  • Higher probability of insecure attachment in infants of mothers low in sensitivity
Lower quantity of care is associated with:
  • Better outcomes for mother-child interaction
  • Lower probability of insecure attachment of infants of mothers low in sensitivity
  • Fewer problem behaviors at 24 months.
Center care is associated with better cognitive and language outcomes and a higher level of school readiness, as compared to outcomes in other settings with comparable quality of care. Group care is associated with fewer reports of problem behavior at age three.

Instability of care, as measured by the number of entries into new care arrangements, was found to be associated with higher probability of insecure attachment in infancy if mothers were not providing sensitive and responsive care.

Most of the children in the study are now turning seven years old and are in the first grade. Researchers will continue to analyze the data over the next several years, releasing additional research findings at professional meetings and in scientific journals, to answer some of the remaining questions about the relationship between child care and children's development.

IV. Bibliography of Publications and Presentations
The NICHD Study of Early Child Care

1. "Child Care During the First Year of Life," Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 1997, 43, 340-360.

2. "Characteristics of Infant Child Care: Factors Contributing to Positive Caregiving." Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1996, volume 11, 269-306.

3. "Familial Factors Associated with Characteristics of Nonmaternal Care for Infants." Journal of Marriage and Family, 1997, Volume 59, 389-408.

4. "Poverty and Patterns of Child Care." Consequences of Growing up Poor, New York: Russell-Sage, 1997.

5. "Child Care and Child Development. The NICHD Study of Early Child Care." In S.L. Friedman and H.C. Haywood (Eds), Developmental Follow-Up: Concepts, Domains and Methods (pp. 377-396), 1994.

6. "Child Care Debate: Transformed or Distorted?" American Psychologist, 1993, 48, 692-693.

7. "Child Care and the Family: An Opportunity to Study Development in Context." Newsletter of the Society for Research in Child Development, Spring 1996, 4-7.

8. "Infant Child Care and Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Child Development, 1997, 68(5), 860-879.

9. Presentation, "When Child-Care Classrooms Meet Recommended Guidelines for Quality." The National Association for the Education of Young Children, November, 1998.

10. "Relations Between Family Predictors and Child Outcomes: Are They Weaker for Children in Child Care," Developmental Psychology, in press.

11. "Infants Child Care and Qualities of Mother-Infant Interaction at 6 and 15 months," Developmental Psychology, submitted for publication.

12. "Child Care and Mother-Child Interaction at 24 and 36 Months," Developmental Psychology, submitted for publication.

13. "Early Child Care and Self-Control, Compliance and Problem Behavior," Child Development, in press.

14. The Relationship of Child Care to Cognitive and Language Development. Presented at the Society for Research in Child Development meeting, April 3-6, 1997, Washington, DC, 1997.

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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