CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Good early child care helps rather than hinders infants' and toddlers' thinking and language development up to age 3 and boosts connections with their mothers, a major new study shows.
The study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and nine other U.S. centers, evaluated the effect of day care on 1,364 children. Early education experts consider it the largest and most carefully controlled research of its kind ever done.
"Because of a major change in the U.S. work force, there has been a lot of concern over the past decade about the influence of child care on very young children," said Dr. Martha Cox, senior investigator at UNC-CH's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center and a principal investigator. "Unlike in the past, now more than 50 percent of women with children under age 1 are in the work force.
"Our findings should go a long way toward reassuring families, especially since young mothers undoubtedly will continue to work."
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded and helped design the study, which will be presented Friday (April 4) at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Washington, D.C.
Researchers followed children in the study group from birth, observing their interactions both at home with mothers and at day-care centers with staff. They also evaluated youngsters with various sophisticated tests of language and mental development.
Most of the children, who are from racially and socially diverse families, are in kindergarten now and will be followed at least until age 10. They were assessed at ages 6, 15 ,24 and 36 months.
"We found that quality child care matters, even when you take into account other family and child variables such as income and education of the parents," Cox said. "Children consistently performed better on measures of thinking and language development if they were in good day care.
"That was especially true in settings in which caregivers provided more language stimulation and more involved care," she said. "Mothers and children also interacted in more positive ways with each other when the children were in better-quality day care."
Youngsters who experienced poorer day care scored lower on the tests. In such centers or private homes, staff did not consistently provide good language stimulation -- such as asking questions and responding to sounds infants and toddlers made.
"Differences we observed were small but still statistically significant over and above effects of the home environment which, as expected, we found were especially strong," Cox said. "This is important for people to know because intellectual and language skills in the early years are the building blocks for school readiness, academic success and self-esteem."
Another finding was that more total hours of care by people other than mothers resulted at various ages in slightly less sensitive play of mothers with children and slightly less affection toward mothers, she said. Children in center care and, to a lesser extent, home care performed better than those in less formal settings, the study showed.
Besides UNC-CH, which follows 130 children, other data collection centers are located at the universities of Arkansas at Little Rock, California at Irvine, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Washington at Seattle and Wisconsin and Temple University. Research Triangle Institute staff also participate in the project.