What Does Research Say About Children in Early Child Care? Quality, Quality, Quality

byAlison Gardner, Psy.D.

Choosing if and what type of non-parental child care to use is a major decision for most parents and can be fraught with questions and anxiety. It is a very personal decision based on many factors, including a family’s financial circumstances as well as the beliefs, goals, availability, and needs of each parent. Families are becoming increasingly creative and diverse in the ways they balance caring for their children when they cannot be with them. The most common options for non-parental child care are center based programs, in home child care centers, nannies, or grandparents, aunts and uncles. But how to chose which type and for how many hours? What is the short and long term impact on our children? Is there any research that can help guide parents and child care providers alike regarding what types of care have the most positive influence on our children? These questions have been studied for several decades. One of the most consistent findings is that the quality of care children receive from their providers, both non-parental and parental, has the most dramatic impact on their well being. Quality of care is related to improved readiness for school, social skills and emotional well being. The definition of “quality care” has several components. First and foremost, quality care means that the caregiver is sensitive and responsive to your child and his emotional and physical needs. In other words, the caregiver is available to provide generous amounts of positive attention to your child (expressing positive regard, noticing unique interests and following his lead in exploring them, talking with him, playing and having fun together, being empathetic to the feelings he experiences, and supporting him in solving any problems he encounters).

Other components of quality care include:


  • Low turn-over rate of provider
  • Low ratio of children to caregiver, especially for infants and toddlers (1:1 has been shown to be more positive than 1:2 in infants and 1:3 has better outcomes for older children than higher child to caregiver ratios)
  • Provider’s choice of child care as a career


  • Provider’s specialized training ( relevant for preschoolers)

Some of the positive outcomes that research has associated with high quality care include:

  • Early learning
  • Successful cognitive and language development, particularly in center based programs
  • Increased school achievement
  • Increased self regulatory behavior
  • Increased cooperativeness
  • More social skills
  • Increased social competence into school age years
  • Reduced rates of conduct problem and delinquency in adolescence and early adulthood

This May, a new study “Do the Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years: Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development,” by D.L. Vandell, M. Burchinal, N. Vandergrift, J. Belsky, L. Steinberg, and the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network was released in the Journal of Child Development. Its findings confirmed the importance of early quality child care and highlighted the long lasting effects on children’s well being.

The authors found that the quality of early child care (care before the age of 4 1/2 years) continues to predict cognitive and academic achievement through at least the age of 15 years. They demonstrated this to be equally true for families of middle and upper income as it is for families who are economically disadvantaged. Interestingly, the positive effects seem to be greatest when moderate quality care is increased to care that is considered of high quality. Additionally, the authors confirmed previous studies which found that greater number of hours in non-relative early child care, particularly center based, was associated with more problem behaviors at age 15. Specifically, children who spent more hours in non-relative care had a greater amount of impulsive and risk taking behaviors at age 15. However, when children had been in high quality early child care, the amount of impulsive and risk taking behaviors observed at age 15 was far less than it was in their peers who had been in lower quality child care.

When it comes to measuring the effects of early child care, there is still much to be learned. Given that as many as 61% of children under 4 years, including 44% of infants under 1 year experience non-parental care for an average of 28 hours per week it is an important issue to continue studying. However, the one finding that seems extremely clear is that when it comes to early child care, finding and providing high quality care will have a positive influence on your child for many years to come.


Lowe Vandell, D., Burchinal, M., Vanderfrift, N., Belsky, J., Steinberg, L., NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2010). Do Effects of Early Child Care Extend to Age 15 Years? Results From the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Child Development, May/June 2010, 81, 737-756.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Child Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Science Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.