Too Much Daycare May Affect Emotional Regulation

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As our son edges closer to his third birthday I find myself being asked to justify our deliberate decision to not use daycare. Managing without it isn’t easy, but we’re lucky enough to be in a unique situation where we can juggle unconventional work schedules, allowing us to care for our little man ourselves. At times, it feels impossible and as if we’re barely keeping our heads above water. But for now, it’s working (just!).

I appreciate it’s not for everyone and it’s impractical for many families. But, it frustrates me when others pressure us to abandon our time with our son when we’re trying our best to raise him in a way that works for us.

“If you don’t put him into daycare how will he learn to socialize?” “If he doesn’t go to daycare now, how will he ever be ready for school?” 

The impression I get is that daycare is now a normal and expected part of toddlerhood. Some people seem perplexed by the choices we’re making and can’t understand why we appear to be making parenting more onerous than they think it ought to be. How has society’s concept of raising children shifted so dramatically that when a parent stays at home to care for their children it’s seen as peculiar?

Before writing this post I asked other parents if they experience the same levels of interrogation I do. What I heard was a resounding, “YES!” – many parents feel judged. Some feel as though full time parenthood is no longer valued and their decision is seen as a sign of weakness in our career-driven western world.

But, with financial pressures on parents escalating while support simultaneously disintegrates, daycare has become a necessary tool for many parents to be able to provide for their families. So, how do we find a balance, make an informed decision and protect our young children in these developmentally critical years?

HOW DO CHILDREN LEARN TO SOCIALIZE? 

Daycare has become so ubiquitous, we’re inclined to assume it’s where toddlers learn social skills. On the surface, it makes sense.  But, Dr Laura Markham, suggests toddlers may learn social skills more effectively in playgroup settings with a parent, or dedicated caregiver, on standby, rather than being put into a “sink or swim” social setting. “You want the digger and Sam also wants the digger. Two boys and only one digger – how can we work this out together?” Adults are able to give children the language they need to make sense of new situations and provide an avenue to problem solve.

Young children learn social skills and emotional regulation by observing and emulating adult behaviour.

By modelling adult behaviour young children learn life skills such as empathy, compassion, kindness and patience. These lessons are cemented through positive reinforcement, which adults (or older children) can readily give. Learning to share, for example, is an alien concept for young children. But, adults are able to model sharing and encourage children to become comfortable with it at their own pace.

Imagine a little girl sharing a toy with her grandmother. She’s rewarded with gratitude and feels safe to share in the knowledge her grandmother will give her toy back. But when the little girl shares with another child, the reaction is less predictable. The other child may snatch the toy, show little gratitude and refuse to return her toy. Such experiences, if frequent, may threaten healthy social development.

But, some children seem to thrive on the opportunity to socialize in a group setting and love seeking out other children. Dr Markham suggests toddlers are biologically designed to be away from parents for short bursts of time only and, in a tribal setting when they need “refueling”, emotionally or physically, they would return to the safety of their parents. This encourages self-confidence to build gradually and naturally. By limiting the number of hours children spend in daycare, to just mornings for example, we can mimic this situation and help children feel more safe and secure.

DOES DAYCARE THREATEN EMOTIONAL REGULATION?

A child’s behaviour tells us a lot about how they’re coping with everyday life. It lets us know how well we’re meeting their emotional needs and it serves as a barometer for how fully they’re able to regulate their emotions. Providing a strong emotional foundation serves children well for the rest of their lives. So, how does childcare affect behaviour? 

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) performed a rigorous longitudinal study following over 1000 children analyzing the effects of childcare on children under the age of five. The researchers found the more time young children spent in non-parental care, the more behavioural problems were seen, including defiance, temper tantrums, refusing to cooperate and aggression.

An analysis by Professor Susanna Loeb, of Stanford University, found the negative social consequences began when children spent three hours per day in daycare and doubled when they spent six hours per day in care. Loeb’s study also demonstrated if children were cared for at home by caregivers other than their parents, such as grandparents or nannies, they did not suffer increased behavioural issues, suggesting the absence of parents isn’t the main problem.

Positive parenting educator, Pam Leo, says babies and children need a secure emotional attachment with at least one adult caregiver in order to thrive mentally and emotionally. By their nature, it is challenging for centre-based daycare (and preschool) facilities to meet these basic emotional needs. Seeking out daycare facilities which place a priority on forming secure connections between caregivers and children, have a low staff turnover and a high adult to child ratio may help mitigate these issues and promote healthy emotional regulation.

IS DAYCARE STRESSFUL FOR CHILDREN?

Cortisol, a stress hormone found in the blood, follows a predictable daily rhythmStudies show when children stay at home, with parents or other caregivers, their cortisol levels peak in the morning and fall throughout the course of the day. But, attending daycare seems to influence this normal rhythm with cortisol levels increasing abnormally during the day.

One study revealed cortisol doubled even in secure youngsters during the first nine days of childcare without their mothers present, compared with their normal level at home. For girls, a cortisol rise may be associated with anxious, vigilant behaviour. And for boys the rise may cause anger and aggression.Toddlers have also been observed to remain “unusually aroused or stressed” requiring extra time and attention from parents at the end of the day to help bring them back to “emotional equilibrium”.

The concern is that chronic elevations in cortisol may contribute to long term health issues: animal models have shown it can increase fearfulness and impair behavioural and physiological regulatory competence. Although studies are inconclusive, common sense would suggest higher quality daycare facilities should reduce the stress experienced by young children.

Dr Markham suggests delaying all-day care (9am-3pm) until children are at least four, if not five, years old, can help lessen the effects of cortisol rise in young children. In addition, seeking out daycare facilities with low staff turnover and where sensitive caregiving is a priority may help children feel more secure, reducing the levels of stress they experience.

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO WHEN DAYCARE IS NECESSARY?

With the exponentially increasing costs of living in modern day society, the loss of extended family support and global housing prices at an all time high, most families need both parents working. Daycare has become a necessary tool to allow parents to do that. Interacting and playing with other children at daycare can be a hugely positive experience but it’s crucial to find a balance between healthy social interactions, sensitive caregiving and the ability to form strong attachments.

A Norwegian study analyzed behavioural problems in children attending preschool – little evidence of behavioural issues were seen. Why is there such a difference between U.S based and Norwegian studies? A number of key differences between Norwegian and U.S childcare facilities may explain. In Norway:

  • Children rarely begin daycare before the age of one.
  • The ratio of adult caregivers to children is very high, improving the ability for children to form strong emotional attachments.
  • Daycare is play-based and emphasizes social over academic skills.
  • Children spend most of the day outside.

Learning from this and from the studies outlined in this post there are a number of factors parents can consciously consider to improve the outcomes for children attending daycare:

  • Limit the number of hours children spend in centre-based daycare.
  • If possible, opt for employing a nanny or use high quality family-based daycare facilities. If grandparents or other family members are able to help with child minding go for it.
  • Accompany your child for the first week (or two) to ease the transition to daycare.
  • Look for daycare facilities with a high adult caregiver to child ratio.
  • Seek out daycare centres with smaller numbers of children (less than fifteen is ideal).
  • Centres which have multi-age groups encourage diverse social interactions – Montessori and Waldorf education systems are well-known for this.
  • Find a daycare centre where outdoor play is encouraged.
  • Avoid daycare before the age of one. Start with three hours or less per day and try to delay all-day care until children are a four years old.

LETTING GO OF JUDGEMENT

As I sit here typing this post close to midnight, I can hear my little man snoring in bed recovering from a recent cold. Chances are I’ll be up before sunrise, grabbing a life-saving coffee and working on my day job so we can spend the day following each other’s leads. I’ll pray he naps after lunch so I can work some more and alleviate the stress I feel trying to keep too many balls in the air at once.

But, I feel privileged to be in a unique situation where I’m able to stay at home, care for my son and continue to work remotely four days a week – like most families, we need two incomes. It’s a struggle but it’s working for us at the moment. There’s no easy, one size fits all solution for balancing the pressures of daily life and being there for our kids. As a society, we must strive to improve the availability of high quality daycare for our children and for families, especially single mothers (a.k.a superheroes) to have the option of staying at home (even part-time) with their young children during these all too fleeting early years.

There should be no judgement for parents needing to use daycare as a necessary tool in order to work and provide for their families. Equally, parents should be celebrated if they choose to leave their careers behind, transition to one income or juggle unconventional work hours in order to care for their families.

Whatever we choose for our children, we’re all doing the best we can given our own set of personal circumstances.

COMMENTS
  • May 20, 2016
    Gayle

    What a disappointing thing, to see you stoop to perpetuating the war of staying at home versus daycare. I’m glad you referenced a study that is from a peer-reviewed journal. I wish you had discussed some of the limitations in applying the conclusions of the study, especially where they noted that maternal sensitivity was the “strongest predictor of all developmental outcomes to which quantity of child care proved to be related.” Also important was the level of the mother’s education as well as households with greater economic resources, these factors demonstrated correlation with positive adjustment. I am glad you found a child care arrangement that works for your family. But to share results of a study when you didn’t fully discuss the study limitations and other nuances is irresponsible, and suggests you are cherry-picking that which promotes your agenda.

    • May 20, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for reading my post Gayle and for commenting. I’m disappointed to hear you think I’m trying to perpetuate a war amongst mothers. My aim with this post, and with any I write, is to show what is best for the welfare of children – whether that can be achieved or not is another question as the realities and challenges of life for everyone are very different. I referenced multiple peer-reviewed journal articles and it’s impossible in a blog post, by their nature, to include every conclusion of every study. I referenced the quantity of daycare at the start of the post (negative effects being noted at 3 hours per day and increasing at 6 hours per day). The impact of the quality of daycare was inconclusive – this post has been through many drafts and at one point I had it in there as a way to reduce stress on children. Common sense would suggest this as well, but the studies didn’t support it unfortunately. Megan Gunner’s article referenced quality of care:
      Regarding quality of care, the first meta-analysis (Geoffroy et al., 2006) concluded that it has been shown conclusively that cortisol levels are higher and rise more over the day in poorer quality child care, whereas the second meta-analysis (Vermeer & van IJzendoorn, 2006) noted that nearly all of the child care studies of cortisol activity have been conducted in relatively high-quality care settings and thus child care quality cannot be the primary factor determining increases in cortisol at child care. The Vermeer and van IJzendoorn (2006) analysis was restricted to studies of children in child care, whereas the Geoffroy et al. (2006) analysis included a broader range of social settings. Thus a conservative conclusion is that the relation between care quality and the cortisol increase over the child care day has not been fully explored.
      As a parent, if our circumstances changed and we required daycare, in spite of the fact that the studies are inconclusive I would still find the highest quality care we could afford – which is what most parents would do.
      I’ve referenced six studies in this post so naturally I have needed to summarize the points which I think will be most relevant to those who read it. I have certainly not tried to “cherry-pick” to serve my own agenda. My motivation for writing this piece was born out of being in a minority of parents who don’t use daycare and feeling judged for doing so. Daycare, like so many other conventional parenting strategies, have become seen as “normal”. I think it’s important to challenge the status quo and see things for how they really are, not how we want them to be. It’s an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless. Most of my family and friends use daycare and I am not opposed to it in an absolute sense – in many ways it can benefit young children – but I think it’s a decision that needs to be made consciously and the only way parents can do that is with knowledge. Thank you again for reading and I hope to see you again, even if we don’t agree on everything.

      • June 03, 2016
        Gayle

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I must admit that reviewing peer-reviewed articles is a sensitive spot for me, as I am involved in academic medicine. I am so glad that you are trying to use both scientific data as well as thoughtful common sense while considering decisions for what is best for both your child and your family. It makes me sad that others have judged your decisions about daycare to the point where you had to say no, here is scientific data that validates my choice. Others ought to respect your decision on the basis that it was your (family’s) decision to make (and not theirs!), end of story.

        • June 03, 2016
          Tracy Gillett

          It’s a pleasure Gayle and thank you for yours. It makes me a little sad too but mostly it makes me want to help others who may be in the same situation. Parenting is such a controversial topic – we all work so hard at it and take it so personally when we feel our choices are being attacked. I love a debate but I think it’s important that people come to the table with knowledge if it’s going to be a meaningful one. Too many of the choices we make in parenting and beyond aren’t well thought out – they’re just done because we think we should or we see someone else doing it. Sometimes I wish I was less passionate about wanting to understand why we do the things we do, it would make life much simpler in many ways but I love it. So thanks again! If you like scientific studies combined with parenting have you checked out Evolutionary Parenting? Tracy Cassells, the author, has more letters after her name than I can fit on this line and she is passionate about reviewing scientific articles. Thanks again and see you soon 🙂

    • June 10, 2017
      Eve

      Every time any article indicates any shortcomings of daycare, working mothers get very angry and post snide comments toward the writer. Do you honestly believe having infants and young children separated from their parents and placed in an institution all day, 5 days a week will have zero negative emotional impact on them in these formative years for the brain? It is politically incorrect to state the facts, and “mommy guilt” is criticized but it is there for a reason. The maternal (or paternal) instinct knows this is an entirely unnatural situation, based on social engineering as the government wants us all working and taxed. If a couple plans carefully, they can save or come up with a plan to live on one income, or stagger part time work. My husband and I aren’t rich, but we’re dedicated to keeping our child home in these formative years. Do you truly know what happens to your child when you’re not there all day? I’m sure if you saw video footage of their days, day in, day out, you’d cringe. I know too many people who’ve worked for years, even in very good daycares and refused to put their own babies in because they said, after what they’ve seen, “I will never put my baby in daycare.” I think it’s time for the culture of denial to wake up.

  • May 23, 2016
    Elizabeth

    I can’t agree with this post enough.

    I’m a single mother by choice and my children go to daycare because as a single parent, I have to work. I hate it every day, but I like having a house.

    I have also worked in a handful of childcare centers, and appreciate this post all the more intensely as a result.

    Daycare is not generally or by default a healthy environment – emotionally, socially (or physically – so much sickness!) Unfortunately, childcare is often an easy job to get with few skills or little training, the turnover is high, the pay is low, there’s a little bit of authority that appeals to those hungry for it – no, all of these things should not be true, but unfortunately they are. It blows my mind that people would try to “socialize” their children by sending them to spend their day with (often) very socially immature adults. I’ve worked a lot of jobs, and seen a lot of unhealthy workplaces, and daycare tops them all.

    My kids are developing socially despite daycare. My number one priority with them, aside from basic survival (hence, daycare) is our connection and their attachment, and daycare certainly does not reinforce this, though I try at home. Unfortunately I live in a small town and don’t have any feasible options at the moment for “good” daycare. There are literally no play-based centers in a 20 mile radius. It’s a necessary “evil” for us right now but this article resonates so much with me because I know it is not helpful to them and I fear every day that it is actively harmful.

    That comment was all over the place but thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this, I can’t add anything to it because I couldn’t have said it better.

    • May 23, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much for your comment Elizabeth and I’m so happy the post was helpful to you. I feel for you being a single parent and doing this alone but it sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job and are so aware of what your children need and doing your best to provide it. My sister recently became a single parent and I am amazed on a daily basis by how she is getting through it on her own and still smiling. Modern life is so demanding in every way, especially financially, and as you say daycare is a necessary part of being able to provide for most families. Thank you again and wishing you and your family all the best.

  • May 26, 2016
    Anna MG

    As someone who works in a high quality daycare centre with motivated and enthusiastic staff, I see happy, settled children who love coming in, have great relationships with staff and with minimal behavioural issues. Some of them have long days, yes, but like you say, it is a privilege to be home with your child.

    My heart goes out for the last commenter, who mentioned poor quality daycare being her only option. However, I can’t help but feel a bit riled up when I see articles like this. Conclusions like this “A conservative conclusion is that the relation between care quality and the cortisol increase over the child care day has not been fully explored” really does not give anyone the authority to assert that quality daycare provision is harmful to children.

    PS I have loved your other articles BTW and think your site is a great resource. I think daycare vs stay at home is a very contentious issue; I am not a mother myself, and yet I find this a hot topic!

    • May 26, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Anna, thanks for reading and for your comment. Yes – this seems to be about the most controversial post I’ve published – parenting is a tough topic to write about as everyone has an opinion and we all pour our hearts and souls into it so we take it very personally if we feel we’re being judged. That’s not the intention of this post.

      The sentence you mention changed a few times in draft mode as I appreciate where you are coming from. There is SO much variability with daycare as you say and common sense would suggest higher quality care would be better for children, which from my point of view would be higher adult:child ratios, attentive staff, smaller numbers of children, ability to form attachments etc which is what I mentioned further down the post. And also why I said “common sense would suggest” in the sentence about care quality – I try to present the studies as they are but I personally agree quality must have an impact. In one of the studies quality was only determined by the cost of the daycare which doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is actually better. I also referenced the Norwegian model of care to show that quality of daycare can have a positive impact.

      You’re right, it is a privilege these days to be home with my son. I work like crazy to achieve it though and some days it seems like I’m attempting the impossible to work and run this blog and look after my little monkey but most days we survive, although I’m recognizing I need more time for myself. I understand you feeling riled up but that’s not the intention – I can imagine if you and I were having a conversation about this topic it would be a conversation I have with other mom friends as we all try to find what’s best for our own kids. Some of my friend’s kids thrive in daycare and others don’t. And some moms are ready for it and others aren’t. I’m glad you like my site and my other articles and hope you’ll come back again 🙂

      • May 30, 2016
        Anna MG

        Thanks for your thoughtful response, I agree it is a conversation about what’s best for kids…hope you get that so-important time for yourself x

        • May 30, 2016
          Tracy Gillett

          No worries Anna – we’re all in this together. Such a maze trying to figure out what works best for everyone and kids are all so different. Thanks so much – we’ll get there 🙂

  • June 02, 2016
    Lori

    Daycare. HOT topic. As the mother of an only child, I did put him in preschool at age 4 as a ‘getting ready’ for kindergarten. Lots of pressure to do so in my affluent community. “If you don’t put him in preschool, he’ll be so far behind the other children when he starts kindergarten.” So I complied, because he had no siblings to play with or a neighborhood with lots of kids his age. Granted it was a pretty fabulous preschool in a farm setting with ponies to ride and berries to pick and bake into muffins and chickens to feed. Would I do it again? No. A peaceful home with interesting day trips and more weekend family time would have been preferable. I believe my now adult son would agree. And I still think 5 years old is too early for kindergarten! To be on the oppsoing side of popular and current theories and practices is always a test of your meddle. So far, no one can force you to raise your children a certain way, but social pressure is very persuasive.

    • June 03, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Uh huh! Sure is a hot topic…took me a few weeks to hit PUBLISH on this one 🙂 I understand the pressure – I get it all the time which was the motivation for this post. Society is skewed s far in one direction I think sometimes we forget there’s another choice. For sure, for many people to earn a living it’s a necessity but the illusion that it’s necessary is a myth that needs busting. I LOVE hearing from moms who can look back with the 20/20 vision hindsight brings – you have so much wisdom to offer and it makes me feel more confident in my choices. I agree, it’s too young and I’ll be delving more into education options in the future. In many countries, Denmark for example, kids don’t start school until they’re seven and I’ve read articles suggesting kid’s brains develop at different rates and the optional time to learn to read isn’t until their 8 or older. There’s a lot to learn…for mama! Social pressure is persuasive so I’ll keep putting my neck on the line and offering another, less common, opinion. Thanks again Lori!

  • May 24, 2017

    Some day care centers have good performance all in all and really helps parents in taking care of their kids.

  • September 19, 2017
    AJ

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on a Montessori preschool as these are very different from more “traditional” daycares.

  • November 19, 2017
    Petra

    Hi,
    thanks for your interesting article. Allow me to share my experience from another part of the World. I come from a small postcomunistic country, where we have 6 months maternity leave and then 2 and a half years of parent leave – thus we stay are allowed to stay at home until the child is 3 years old. We do have high quality day care (max 4 children per person, max 12 children in one room, good education required), but not many centers, because vast majority of mothers stays at home. And it is considered as standard. If a mother has to work, everybody feels sorry for her. In our mind, child should be with mother (or fahter, it is possible for fathers to take the 2 years of work as well, but traditionally it is the mother). Yes, we are not as rich as you are, very often young families have to share a house with their parents, but this brings another positive things – we learn from one generation to another, we keep traditions, stories, songs, something that I have not seen in many other western cultures. When I withessed the day care reality in U.S. it was so shocking to me, that I could never live in such a country that honor their pay check before their children. I do not understand how people can think that a day care can benefit a small baby. For us, it is (sometimes) a necessary evil, but always the last option.

  • November 21, 2017
    Laura

    Thank you for this piece. I think the last ~30 years of infants in daycare has been largely responsible for the epidemic of social anxiety we see in teens.

    Babies learn to self regulate in a dyad. If there is no dyad there is no regulation, and no learning of self regulation.

    The more mothers acknowledge the harms of daycare, the more society will be forced to support moms and babies in this critical developmental period.

    If women stay silent on this issue, they are throwing kids under the bus of feminism. We need to admit that daycare is great for working moms but substandard for small babies.

  • November 26, 2018
    Tamaryn

    I love this blog. It is making me re think many of the choices i have made for my son. In South Africa it is common if not a given that most toddlers start nursery school around 18 months old. They spend around 4 to 4.5 hours a day at school. With the above comments in mind I would love thoughts on this. Should I be delaying this and staying at home with my boy for much longer

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