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Is daycare good for babies?

Daycare is a necessity for most parents because many families require two incomes to get by financially. Others have made a personal choice to combine working and supportive home life for the benefit of all members of the household. Single parents usually don’t have the capacity to raise their young ones and hold down a job at the same time.

While the inability to do it all is often stressful for many parents, they can rest assured daycare is a viable option. It offers long-lasting social, economic and academic benefits for kids and their parents. Studies have shown that children, including babies and infants from the ages of 6 months to 4 years, benefit from the daycare environment, including its quality instruction, structure and social lessons.

When to start your child in daycare is a personal decision and may depend on many factors, including the length of your parental leave; your partner’s ability to take leave; your financial responsibilities; and whether you have other available childcare options, such as relatives or in-home care.

But most experts agree that the longer you can wait, the better. This allows time to establish a secure attachment, for the umbilical cord to heal fully, to figure out feeding and sleep patterns, and for both parents and baby to adjust to all the newborn newness.

Since many working parents have only a six-week leave and their families rely on their income, waiting until the baby is older is not always an option. Most daycare centres will not take babies under six weeks of age, and many facilities are not equipped to handle the special needs of infants born prematurely or with special medical concerns.​

No matter how much you love your job or your daycare centre, saying farewell to your little one every morning is never easy. But take heart, moms, because an array of studies show that high-quality childcare, where there are frequent, positive interactions between caregivers and children, which usually correlates with low teacher-to-student ratios and teachers with higher levels of education, pays off in a number of important ways, well into adulthood. Want proof? Check out these surprising perks of sending your kids to daycare, all backed by scientific research and guaranteed to make you breathe a little easier the next time someone tries to make you feel guilty for being a hard-working mother.

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When to Start Looking for Daycare Providers

It’s best to start looking for daycare providers during pregnancy. Many high-quality childcare centres fill up quickly and have waiting lists. If you know that you will need to go back to work within a certain period of time, start scouting out daycares early. This way, you can deal with any childcare problems before you are also taking care of a newborn, recovering from birth, and dealing with the emotions of returning to work.

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What to Look For in a Daycare Provider

Be sure to ask a lot of questions about whether the daycare is licensed, the staff’s qualifications, the ratio of babies-to-care providers, and the structure of the day. Babies also need a clean and safe environment as they start to explore the world around them. 

Babies thrive in situations where they have a lot of one-on-one attention from a single caregiver so that family daycare can be ideal at this stage. There are a small number of babies per caregiver, and the caregiver can respond to babies’ needs quickly. 

The ratio recommended by the Child Development Council is one adult to four babies, birth to 18 months, in a group of no more than eight babies. (This applies to any setting, whether home-based or not.)

Establishing attachment and trust to caregivers is very important for babies 18 months and younger. Continuity of care is the most important aspect at this stage. Babies need time to develop an attachment to and trust in their carer.

Infants can thrive in childcare as long as they enjoy plenty of attention, affection, playful interaction with caregivers and rich language experiences. A quality caregiver will be sensitive to a baby’s needs, feel comfortable expressing affection towards babies, and understand child development stages.

A study published in 2006 by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported that childcare doesn’t threaten the bond between infants and their mothers, as long as a baby is getting sensitive, positive care at home. 

Other Childcare Options

Alternatives to daycare include hiring a nanny or professional caregiver or taking your infant to work, at least until your baby is older. Look at the pros and cons of various childcare options, such as cost, flexibility, attention to your baby, and other factors that may be important to you.

Benefits of Daycare for Young Children

Regular Schedule and Activities

Even young children have a schedule at daycare. Although they might not be aware of the ticking clock, children are provided with a full slate of activities that include songs and storytelling. For toddlers, these fun tasks are essential to their intellectual growth and development. The scheduled activities are also satisfying for parents, who have less worry that their toddler’s behaviour will be erratic at the end of the day due to a lack of structured times for eating, playing and napping.

Academic Advancement

An extensive study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that young children had higher cognitive and academic achievement scores as teens if they spent time in high-quality daycare as young children. Of the more than 1,300 children studied, over 90 per cent had been in the care of someone other than a parent before the age of 4. The study defined “high-quality” daycare as facilities that provide extensive interaction with care providers, support, and cognitive-boosting activities.

Time With Peers

Stay-at-home parents value the regular play dates they arrange with families and neighbours with kids of a similar age. Daycare interaction is an extension of this phenomenon, where kids get to spend time around one another in a supervised, structured and safe environment. Kids learn how to problem-solve, share and otherwise play and learn well together, while their minds are still growing and personalities still emerging.

Interaction With Other Adults

When children are very young, they learn about adults mostly from their parents and senior members of their families. Daycare provides an opportunity for children to see other adults as mentors and authority figures able to provide positive guidance. A 2006 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study found that high-quality daycare was directly connected to quality caregiving. Specifically, adult care providers respond to children’s vocalizations, encourage, show a positive attitude and discourage negative interactions in the daycare environment.

Smoother Transition to Kindergarten

A study at the University of Texas at Austin found that parents who enrolled their children in daycare were more involved in school life as their kids got older. This choice benefited not only the parents, who had greater involvement in their children’s structured academic life but the youngsters themselves. After going to daycare kids found it easier to adjust to formal schooling.

Social and Economic Benefits for Parents

Dropping your child at daycare can seem like a rushed, often anxiety-provoking experience. Even if you have done your research and are actively engaged in learning about the daycare’s staff, credentials and day-to-day operations, you are still leaving your precious child with a group of strangers. You may have little to no interaction with people who are sharing your experience: other parents. However, a recent study showed that even a small amount of time with other parents provides immense benefit.

The University of Chicago found that those few moments parents spent engaging in talk while dropping off their children provided immense long-term benefits. The parents gained “social capital,” which might also be thought of as a feeling of community. Parents had markedly lower rates of depression and experienced less financial hardship over the long term, and simply knowing the parents of other children increased the level of trust parents had in the institution. Daycares were especially beneficial in low-income neighbourhoods, where the centres were used as a kind of pipeline for government support services.

Clinical psychologist Francine Lederer stated that some women who are financially able to stay at home might choose to go back to work for their mental health. While this decision may seem counter-intuitive, it may be what’s best for the baby. According to Lederer, women who don’t work can suffer from depression, which may harm their children. If mom is happier working, and children thrive in a high-quality daycare, the placement may be best for everyone.

Daycare May Help Your Family Thrive

While choosing daycare may be a heart-pounding option for many parents, there are clear evidence children will benefit over the long term. Finding a quality daycare centre where children are supported, engaged, encouraged and exposed to a positive attitude can help babies and toddlers set the groundwork for later intellectual strides. As kids learn to problem-solve and interact positively with other kids and adults, their parents can get to know one another and increase the social capital they hold in their community.

Daycare makes kids better behaved.

The conventional wisdom would have you believe that daycare kids grow up to be antisocial bullies, but rest easy: A new study confirms that kids who attend “high-quality, centre-based childcare” actually exhibit better behaviours than those who don’t. Researchers at Sorbonne University in Paris surveyed nearly 1,500 parents. The parents were asked to chronicle their child’s behaviour from birth until eight years, and a distinct pattern emerged: Children who attended daycare for more than one year demonstrated better social skills and fewer peer-related difficulties. “Access to high-quality childcare in the first years of life may improve children’s emotional and cognitive development, prevent later emotional difficulties and promote prosocial behaviours,” Dr Maria Melchior, co-author of the report, told Popsugar.

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Daycare may lower the risk of cancer.

It turns out all of those daycare germs may be a good thing, strangely enough. Researchers from the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in France studied 280 cases of childhood cancer. They found that kids who had been in daycare were less likely to have acute leukemia than those who had only been at home. They theorized that kids who aren’t exposed to infections end up overreacting to germs, later on, leading to immune system malfunctions like leukemia. Other studies have shown that kids who attend daycare or playgroups have about a 30 per cent lower risk of developing the most common type of childhood leukemia.

Daycare makes kids smarter.

In 2006, the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development conducted a seminal study of over 3,000 kids, and the verdict should be reassuring to moms everywhere: Overall, children who were cared for by others didn’t develop any differently than children cared for exclusively by their mothers. However, there was one encouraging caveat: Children in high-quality daycare had better language and cognitive development during the first four-and-a-half years of life. Even better, the benefits remain at least through the age of 15.

Daycare makes kids more likely to get college degrees.

Again, it’s high-quality daycare here that counts. A 30-year study led by the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that infants enrolled in a high-quality childcare program were four times more likely to have earned a college degree. They also had significantly more years of total education than their peers who were part of a control group.

Daycare makes kids more likely to postpone parenthood.

Sure, you want to be a grandma—a long time from now. Well, good news: The same UNC study, dubbed the Abecedarian Project, found that the kids in high-quality care delayed parenthood by almost two years compared to the control group.

Daycare makes kids more likely to stay employed.

That’s right—daycare makes kids more likely to hold down a job as adults, the UNC study found. At age 30, kids in high-quality care were more likely to have been consistently employed (75 per cent had worked full-time for at least 16 of the previous 24 months, compared to 53 per cent of the control group).

Daycare makes kids less likely to inherit their mom’s depression.

It makes sense: If Mom is hurting, kids are more likely to pick up on it if they’re at home than at daycare. That’s the conclusion from a 2013 study conducted by the University of Quebec, examining 1,759 children with mothers who suffered from depression. Research shows that depressed women are more likely to have kids who also develop depression and anxiety disorders and that those problems can extend through the teenage years. But kids who attended daycare had a 79 per cent reduced risk of developing emotional problems, compared to kids who stayed home with their moms.

Daycare makes kids less likely to get sick in grade school.

If that isn’t a reason to love daycare, we don’t know what is. Again, it seems that all those early childhood sniffles pay off down the road by toughening up kids’ immune systems. A study of 10,000 Australian children found that kids under 3½ were more likely to have ear infections than those exclusively at home (duh). Still, that ongoing problems with ear infections were lower in children who had attended daycare as babies. So, take heart, moms: They’re getting it out of their system now.

Daycare prepares kids for school.

Beyond their credentials, teachers in preschool settings provide a more developmentally stimulating environment, too, researchers say.

Quality, as always, is key, but a 2016 study found that by age 5, children who attended formal childcare programs had substantially stronger reading and math skills relative to similar children who attended informal, home-based childcare settings. According to researchers from the University of Virginia, Cornell University, the Urban Institute and Stanford University, teachers with lots of education and training in early childhood development are pretty good at, well, developing little learners.

Daycare makes kids more efficient communicators.

One key to effective communication is adjusting your speech based on who you’re talking to, and it looks like kids in daycare may be more intuitive in this regard. To study the neural mechanisms that support verbal and non-verbal communication, Dutch researchers watched 5-year-olds playing a two-person game, and discovered that the more days children spent in daycare, the better they were able to adjust their communication style to the other player—likely because of their exposure to a greater variety of social situations, they suggest.

Daycare moms are more likely to participate in their kids’ schools.

It’s time to say goodbye to the stereotype of the busy working mom who misses the PTA meeting. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied 1,300 children. They found that moms whose kids were cared for in daycare centres or others’ homes were more likely to be involved in their children’s schools starting in kindergarten—even more likely than mothers who cared for their kids themselves. That participation included everything from being in regular communication with teachers to attending an open house and forging friendships with other parents.

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Honesty is the best policy

Parents care about their children’s well-being and must balance the benefits associated with more income against the benefits of staying home to take care of them. But good decision-making on the part of both families and policymakers depends on clear-eyed, honest assessments of the best scientific research — no matter how difficult the conclusions may be. Researchers must be honest with themselves and with their readers about what their data show, especially when the results contradict popular opinion. The well-being of future generations is too important to continue making individual decisions and public policies with skewed information.

The media have an important role to play in this, and shouldn’t shy away from presenting reliable research, even if the findings make them and their readers uncomfortable. Ignoring studies like those we’ve highlighted here is a disservice to policymakers, the public, parents, and — most importantly — the children themselves. The public deserves to have a robust debate about the best ways to help parents and create an environment for children to thrive.

Legislators and educators, who continue to question the role of infant care too, seem to put aside the reality that half of all infants today are regularly cared for by someone other than their parents, three-quarters of them for more than twenty hours a week, and that that proportion is growing steadily. Research into the effects of infant daycare clearly must proceed, and its implications may be great for parents and employers. But that research should not distract us from the undisputed fact that bad care is never good for any child and good daycare is all too hard to find.

The first few days and weeks after your baby starts daycare may be very difficult. You may feel worried, scared, or jealous. All these feelings are normal, and as you become more comfortable with the childcare provider and see that your baby is cared for, you should begin to feel better about the decision.

However, if you have a bad feeling, trust yourself. You are not married to any childcare situation. Do what is best for you and your family. 

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