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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Coping with Transition: in Early Childhood: Going to Daycare

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Many families will use some form of routine daycare while parents fulfill other work and personal needs outside the home. There are many different forms of child care. Some families depend on nearby relatives (e.g., grandparents, aunts, or uncles) to provide care for their children. Other caregivers look outside the family for child care where there are a confusing array of expensive care options, including in-home babysitters, nannies; small home-based child-care arrangements; and larger, more formal and organized daycare centers which may be sponsored by private, public, or religious organizations. For more information on the pros and cons of these various types of child care, please refer to our article on finding appropriate child care.

There are many benefits to placing children in child care for a portion of each day. Most centrally, child care allows caregivers to continue to work and earn money they may need to support their family. In the United States, caregivers may need to continue working at all costs because only through their employment can they gain access to reasonable health insurance for themselves and their children. The need to remain employed to continue access to health insurance may be less of a concern for caregivers living in other countries with a more sane health insurance system. Some caregivers are in the midst of career paths when they find themselves with children. Childcare arrangements can make it possible for them to continue their ongoing career path with only minimal interruption.

Quite apart from the motivation to use childcare out of economic necessity, child care confers other benefits upon children. Children in child care are exposed to peers on a regular basis at an earlier age than children who are cared for at home. Consequently, they begin to learn important social skills such as how to share, follow directions, and cooperate at an early age. In addition, paid or family child care providers may offer children access to resources that primary caregivers cannot provide. For instance, an aunt may be very skilled at teaching arts and crafts, or a day care center may have a wealth of different educational toys that can help foster a child's development which are not available inside the home.

There are some negative aspects to formal out-of-the-home child care as well as benefits. Because children are exposed to peers their age, they are also exposed to a multitude of germs and diseases. Families utilizing child care should plan for their children getting sick far more often than families caring for children at home. Caregivers may have to arrange for a back-up babysitter or make other secondary child care arrangements on days when their children are ill, as many daycare centers don't allow sick children to attend. Some centers may not be compatible with a particular child's personality or approach to life, and should this happen, parents may have to do more research (and/or pay more) to find an arrangement that works. Finally, there is always the possibility of accidents and problems that can occur in a childcare setting. Such problems may occur at a physical plant safety level, may involve staff, or may involve problems between children. Accidents can happen, supervision can fail, and even abuse does occur occasionally. Caregivers should continually monitor their child care arrangements so as to make sure that their children are being well-taken care of in terms of their physical, emotional, and social needs. See our article on finding quality child care, and our other article on preventing child abuse and mistreatment for more ideas about how to find a child care arrangement that works for your family.

Experts continue to discuss and study the effects of long-term child care on children as they age across the lifespan. Some early research suggested that children who spent a significant portion of their infancy and early childhood years in child care settings were more likely to exhibit anti-social, aggressive, and other negative behaviors than peers who were cared for at home. However, newer research suggests that the quality of the child care arrangements are key. Young children placed in high quality day care settings show more evidence of well developed pro-social behaviors such as sharing and the capacity for empathy, then their home-cared peers.

For caregivers who have the luxury of choice (and it is important to realize that not all caregivers do have a choice), the decision whether to stay at home with young children or place them in child care can be very difficult to make. Caregivers may feel tremendously guilty when they think about working during the time when their children are small. Such caregivers may find themselves torn between a desire to be stay-at-home caregivers and a desire to continue working, either out of necessity (so as to provide necessary income and insurance), or because they find great personal fulfillment through their careers. This sort of decision is very personal and needs to be made in a holistic manner, taking all competing career and family demands into account. There is no single path through this choice that is always right in every circumstance. No matter what decision caregivers ultimately come to, it should be kept in mind that caregivers who are happy with their life situation (whether that means working full or part-time outside the home, or being a full-time caregiver in the home) will be better parents.

A special note is appropriate concerning families who ask other family members to provide child care services. This type of arrangement can encourage close family relationships, but can also become a recipe for disaster if expectations and rules for how care will be provided are not specified in detail, in advance. Family members should have an open and honest discussion about what daily activities, discipline strategies and foods for meals and snacks are acceptable. As part of the discussion, all financial arrangements should be openly discussed. Both parties should agree on an hourly/daily rate (if applicable), and if and how caregivers will be reimbursed for food, diapers, activities, etc. Having this discussion in advance should hopefully help prevent disagreements or power struggles between family members at a later date. Also, it can allow caregivers to choose alternative arrangements should other family members be unwilling to follow the outlined plan. Rather than placing children with family members who will not honor agreements, caregivers may be better off using a commercial service which does promise to provide acceptable care, even if this proves to be a more expensive option.