Millions of parents drop their toddlers off at day care centers so they can go to work, but some are racked with guilt about it.
One of their main concerns? Time spent in group day care could encourage their toddler to start acting out.
Now, a large, new study suggests that parents can breathe a sigh of relief: Kids who spend long hours in day care centers aren't any more likely to become hitters, biters, hair pullers or bullies.
"The fact that we find no relation between spending time in center-based care and children's externalizing behaviors is reassuring for parents, given the current trends in child care use and parental participation in the labor force," said study author Catalina Rey-Guerra. She is the co-director of Fundación Apapacho and a fellow of the Institute of Early Childhood Policy at Boston College.
Earlier studies have shown that day care may actually boost school performance down the road.
"Our findings speak to both the direct positive effects that attending child care might have on children and also to the indirect positive effects through parents being able to participate in the workforce without the fear of any harmful effects to their child," Rey-Guerra said.
For the study, the researchers reviewed teacher and/or parent reports on more than 10,000 toddlers and preschoolers who took part in seven studies spanning 1993 to 2012. The study involved five countries. The older the kids got, the more hours a week they were spending in day care centers, but this did not result in behavioral issues. The findings held even when researchers controlled for family income or parents' education level.
The study was published Nov. 16 in the journal Child Development.
Child experts not part of the study point out there are pros and cons to every child care arrangement.
"Generally speaking, what is best for the family is what is best for the kid," said Michael Mintz, associate director of the child development program at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.
You don't want a parent to stay at home when they would be happier working out of the house, he said. "It also may not make sense for a family member to drive 30 minutes across town to get their kid to the 'perfect day care' when home-based care is offered two doors down and is loving and supportive," Mintz noted.
Dr. Shawna Newman, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed. "Parents are always concerned about providing the best possible care for their children."
And for those who choose center-based day care, this study is "extremely reassuring and encouraging," she said. "There is no evidence that time spent in center-based day care results in more externalizing behavior among kids such as outbursts and aggression."
There are other benefits to center-based care. "It can be educationally enriching and provide developmental, age-appropriate learning opportunities and social and emotional support," Newman said.
When considering a program, make sure the staff is welcoming to parents and caregivers, she said. "If you walk in and think, 'Wow, I feel welcome,' your child will, too."
Cleanliness of the facility is also important, Newman added.
"The center should offer a regular schedule where kids have snack time, story time, nap time and circle time that lends a rhythm to their day," she said.
Make sure staff members are friendly, love kids and are aligned with the mission of the particular center you choose whether that is education, creativity or another purpose.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on how to choose the right day care for your child.
SOURCES: Catalina Rey-Guerra, PhD candidate, co-director, Fundación Apapacho, fellow, Institute of Early Childhood Policy, Boston College; Michael Mintz, PsyD, associate director, child development program, Children's National Hospital, Washington, D.C.; Shawna Newman, MD, director, child and adolescent psychiatry, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Child Development, Nov. 16, 2022