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New Major Study Challenges Connection Between Child Care and Behavioral Issues

A major study of  over 75,000 Norwegian children featured in the journal Child Development revealed little evidence that spending more hours in child care leads to behavioral issues in children. This discovery  is in stark contrast to previous findings from the United States which suggest that children spending more time in child care have, on average, higher levels of aggression and noncompliance than children who spend less or no time in child care.

“We have demonstrated that young children do not develop behavioral problems when child care is of relatively good quality and universally available, and when parents do not have the need to put their children in care in the first year of life. Taking advantage of sophisticated statistical methods that can be applied in such large samples, this work provides strong scientific evidence for national policy on early childhood care and education, and for parents making decisions about child care for their young children,”  said senior author Claudio O. Toppelberg, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker Children's Center.

Dr. Toppelberg collaborated with Henrik D. Zachrisson, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and The Norwegian Center for Child Behavioral Development;  Eric Dearing, of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College; and  Ratib Lekhal, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, on the groundbreaking study.  Data for this large study was provided by the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, which followed 72,000 mothers and their children, including 8,000 sibling pairs. The analyses focused on mothers’ reports of aggression and noncompliance at 18 and 36 months, and on hours in child care at the same time points. In addition to comparing children from different families, siblings who differed from one another regarding the number of hours in child care were compared. The findings reveal that children who spent more hours in child care had no more aggression and noncompliance than did their siblings who spent less time in daycare. Furthermore, when individual children were followed over time, increases in hours in daycare were not linked to corresponding increases in children’s problem behaviors.

Researchers speculate that one of the reasons these results from Norway differ from those from the United States may be differences in child care and family leave policy across the two countries. In contrast to the United States, Norway has a comprehensive early childhood policy which , in addition to universal access and quality standards, includes one year paid parental leave so that most children do not enter care until age one.

“There have been important concerns based on research done in the United States that spending a large number of hours in child care may cause young children to develop problems with aggressive and noncompliant behavior. Surprisingly, our results robustly show that children do not develop these problems when the context is correctly designed.  These findings provide a useful international illustration of ways in which daycare and work-family policies may crucially affect children’s experiences and the consequences of these experiences in early life. In addition, these results may support some parents’ decisions to delay the start of child care until after age one and to favor high quality child care settings, while also relieving parental concerns about the behavioral impact of daycare decisions,” notes Dr. Toppelberg.

Claudio O. Toppelberg, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and board-certified psychiatrist, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is a research scientist at Judge Baker Children’s Center, where he directs the Child Language & Developmental Psychiatry Research Lab. For more information, contact Dr. Toppelberg at  (617) 278-4268