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Infant Daycare Issues (1988)

IN FOCUS is a publication of Fact Find, a project funded by the Bush Foundation to provide information about young children and families to Minnesota policy makers. This year's focus will be on Children At Risk. As you know, that term can mean a variety of things depending on the speaker, the time, the place and the concerns. This issue of IN FOCUS addresses the risks for the infants of working mothers and the arrangements for the care of these infants.

Twenty years ago, experts predicted a steady increase in the number of employed mothers with children under 6 years. But no one predicted the dramatic increase of mothers with infants under 12 months in the work force. In 1972, 24% of these mothers were in the work force; by 1985, the rate had doubled and today more that 50% of the mothers of infants work outside the home.

A major transformation in the way infants are reared occurred with little warning and no social planning. In 1986, Jay Belsky (Pennsylvania State University) reviewed research about the impact of early nonmaternal care on the social/emotional development of infants. He suggested that infants who experience full-time (more than 20 hours per week) day care are at heightened risk of becoming more aggressive, noncompliant, and socially withdrawn in preschool and early school years. He called the first year a "window of vulnerability" and suggested that the primary caretaking should be done by a parent.

Belsky's review ignited a debate among researchers who regularly review and question one another to refine and improve their work. This kind of debate usually takes place within the scientific community, but this particular discussion got national media attention. The news did not report that comments by colleagues were part of a scientific debate and the complexities of the research were ignored. Instead, the media suggested that there had been a major new discovery on this important issue. Additional explanatory statements in the press only muddled the issue further.

In September 1988, a special edition of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly addressed the concerns about the effects of infant day care.

Jay Belsky, who started the infant day care debate, said, "My reading of the literature leads to no inevitable or even necessary proposals with respect to public policy." He suggested it is up to each reader "to infer what implications are to families, communities, and to policy makers."

Some interpreted his concerns about the effects of early day care to mean that mothers should not go to work during their infants' first year. Others said he was making a case for providing parents with affordable, quality care and with better choices regarding their child care decisions.

L. Alan Sroufe (University of Minnesota) reflected on what to tell parents who are contemplating day care for young infants. He said, "At this time there certainly are no simple answers." From his own and other research, he believes that there is probably a link between early, extensive day care and the child's social and emotional behavior as he grows.

Because of his developmental perspective, (which suggests that experiences in infancy will affect later development) Sroufe suggested that parents should be told about ways to minimize possible negative influences, such as selecting good quality care, and making stable, consistent arrangements. He pointed out the need for a support system so that adults and children can establish and maintain emotional closeness.

His opinion is that parents who can do so should delay full-time day care until an infant's second year. "This is as much because of what we do not know as it is because of what we do know. We need to press ahead with needed research."

Sroufe concluded, "In the meantime, there is little justification for policies that promote an increase in the use of early day care. Rather, in both the public and the private sectors we should explore a range of policies (e.g. parental leave) that enable parents to provide continuous care for their infants."

Ross Thompson (University of Nebraska), after reviewing research literature on the effects of infant day care on the social/ emotional development of children, said that it offers no specific implications for public policy. He suggests that the issues may really be about values concerning the women's movement, or the links between quality of care, affordability and accessibility.

K. Alison Clarke-Stewart (University of California-Irvine) considered the risks for parents and children related to infant day care. She pointed to the fact that balancing a job and a family can create stressful circumstances. These stresses may make employed parents less available and less sensitive to their infants and this, in turn, may contribute to the problems that some attribute to the day care situation.

She stated, " makes sense for us to investigate ways or informing, educating, and supporting working parents of young children. That seems to me to be a more humane and sensible conclusion to our present state of semi-ignorance than implying or advocating that mothers of young children should not work."

Clarke-Stewart recommended that to get out of our state of semi-ignorance, "...what is called for most urgently is more careful, more thorough, and more creative research, so that at some time in the near future we can discuss the effects of maternal employment and infant day care on the development of young children--authoritatively, consensually, and publicly."

John E. Richters and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler (The National Institute of Mental Health) conclude, "We are in the midst of a debate over the effects of early day care on children's adjustment, on the basis of a handful of studies, most of which were not designed to answer the very questions they raise."

Such questions include: Who are the infants in the research studies? Why are they in day care? What are their mothers, fathers, and families like? What is the form and quality of day care being used? How were they doing before the day care experience, and why? How are they doing at present, and why? How do their parents treat them when they are not in day care, and why?

Fact Find Says:

The reports in Early Childhood Research Quarterly indicate that what we know right now from research about the long term effects of infant day care is not conclusive and therefore cannot be the basis for policy recommendations. But, policy makers can't wait for the longitudinal studies. The problems associated with providing high quality care for infants are here, now.

In making policy decisions about care of infants, one resource is recommendations made by many social scientists regarding some form of parental leave to allow infants to be with a parent during at least part of the critical first year. There are also reliable research results about quality in child care. Quality indicators and appropriate practices in caring for children have been published by national organizations.

The National Center for Infant Clinical Programs held an "Infant day care research summit meeting" where 16 researchers from all over the country reached consensus on several related issues.

They emphasized that the quality of infant care matters enormously. According to the research group, both the home and the child care environment should provide the infant with:

The NCICP group recommended that child care be viewed as a family support. And, since the quality of the caregiver determines, to such a large extent, the quality of the child's experience, they pointed out the urgent need to improve salaries, working conditions and training for child care providers.


Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3, September, 1988. Special Issue: Infant Day Care.

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Reprinted with permission of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, Suite 425, St. Paul, MN, 55108; phone: 612-625-3058; fax: 612-625-2093; e-mail:, web site:


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