Quantity has more impact than quality when it comes to daycare.

Psychological Effects of Sending Children to Daycare

by Patti Richards

Parents with toddlers in daycare often struggle with guilt over being unable to care for their children at home. But if your job doesn’t allow for an extended maternity leave or your financial bottom line can’t handle being a stay-at-home mom, daycare may be the only option. This hot-button issue has been studied repeatedly. Preliminary results from studies like the one done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2000 indicate that children ages 1 to 3 suffer no adverse effects from time spent in daycare. But the jury is still out on how it affects them when they are older.

Learning Readiness

According to a report entitled "The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide: How Much Is Too Much?", sociologists at Stanford and the University of California found that cognitive skills in the areas of reading and math were strongest when children had been in a center-based childcare program from ages 2 to 3. The reason could be that these children are getting direct instruction in pre-reading and early math skills rather than simply learning from playtime, preschool television programs or computer games. Compared to many homes, childcare centers and preschools have more ways to stimulate the desire to learn and have more educational games, toys and other resources. Researchers did find that learning readiness increased for children who were in child care facilities with a low child to care giver ratio. So being at home with mom and going to story time at the library can be a better option than a daycare with too many kids per care giver.

Social Skills

On the flip side of all those learning readiness statistics is the lack of social skills for kids who spend too much time in daycare. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study concluded that children from what were considered high-income families -- families making at least $66,000 -- who spent more than 30 hours per week in child care, had the weakest social skills. There was some increase in social development related to the quality of the daycare, but for the most part, the quantity of the care had the greatest impact. So if you feel your toddler is lagging behind in toddler-appropriate social graces, you might consider decreasing the amount of time she spends in daycare.


When it comes to good behavior, toddlers need all the reinforcement they can get. According to the National Institute study, children in daycare more than 30 hours per week had decreased levels of cooperation, had a harder time sharing and taking part in classroom tasks, and had greater aggression than children who stayed home with their parents. As in pre-learning skills, this could have everything to do with the care giver to child ratio. Like other moms, you know your toddler picks up bad habits or inappropriate behaviors the moment your back is turned, so having too many kids per care giver gives them more opportunities to do things they shouldn’t.

Child-Mother Bonding

One area that may give mothers a reason to think twice about daycare is the strength of the mother-child bond. Along with learning readiness, social skills and behavior, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study also looked at how children in daycare bond with their mothers. Researchers found a “small but significant” link between the amount of time a child spends in daycare and the lack of positive interaction with her mother. Since researchers were unable to come up with a magic number of how many hours in daycare leads to decreased bonding, it is an important factor for moms to consider when signing their toddlers up for daycare.

About the Author

Patti Richards has been a writer since 1990. She writes children’s books and articles on parenting, women's health and education. Her credits include San Diego Family Magazine, Metro Parent Magazine, Boys' Quest Magazine and many others. Richards has a Bachelor of Science in English/secondary education from Welch College.

Photo Credits

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