European child care study cites long-term social benefits for infants and toddlers

Last month, the National Institutes of Health released results from the longest-running and most comprehensive study of child care in the United States, linking the quality of care infants and toddlers receive to their academic achievement and behavior in adolescence. According to the study, children who received lower-quality child care exhibited a greater propensity toward impulsiveness and risk-taking at age 15. By contrast, children of the same age who had spent time in better quality child care scored higher on measures of academic and cognitive achievement.

Those findings were not entirely surprising. A raft of research has linked quality early care and education to a child's success in life much later. It's why groups like DC Action for Children exist: to ensure that all children have access to high quality early care and education, regardless of their economic circumstances. 

But the NIH study also had a more general finding that seemed less helpful. It linked longer hours spent in any kind of child care, regardless of quality, with an uptick in aggressive behavior in adolescence. This finding struck working moms like a dagger of guilt right through the heart. What choice do we have? Most of us cannot afford to stay at home full time with our children, and in order to work and help support our families, we have to put our children in child care. 

Thankfully, a new report based on data from a similar study of child care in Europe offers some consolation to working moms. Kathy Sylva, a professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, analyzed data from Europe's largest long-term study of child care--tracking 3,000 children since 1996--and found scant ill effects of sending children under two to "nurseries" with average average centers. 

In fact, Sylva found that children who spent time before the age of 2 in child care formed stronger relationships once they started school, leading the Times Online (U.K.) to chirp, "Don't fret, Mum, nurseries are good for them." (Sylva acknowledged that there was some link to increased aggression in primary school in some children in the study, but that the troublesome behavior mostly evaporated by age 11.)

Taken together, the two studies underscore the importance of high-quality early care and education as a basis for success later in school and life. We need to ensure that all working parents with young children have access to child care that is not just safe and affordable, but sets children on the path to becoming successful adults, and that includes successfully navigating the pressures of adolescence.