Is daycare better than grandparent care for babies?

Putting babies in formal daycare during their first nine months of life while mum goes to work seems at first blush quite the wrong thing to do. But more and more mothers of very young children are in the workforce (before the recession, anyway) and governments are facilitating the trend. As a result, researchers are beavering away to gather evidence of the effects of early daycare on children as they grow up. Their findings can be contradictory. Some studies have found early daycare linked with behavioural problems during school years.

The latest evidence comes from the UK where children born in 2000 and 2001 (the Millennium Cohort Study) are being studied. Researchers from the Institute for Education looked at data for 4,800 children who had mothers who worked when they were babies and who were cared for either by grandparents or in formal group care.

They found that at age three, the children who had been in nurseries or crèches as babies were more ready for school -- showing a better understanding of colours, letters, numbers and counting, sizes comparisons and shapes -- than those who had been cared for by grandparents. The latter group did have better vocabulary, but they were considered also to be less sociable with other children at age three than those who had been in the care of a nursery or crèche, childminder, nanny or another relative.

So, if working mums want their three-year-old to be ready for school it seems they should they give grandma a break and go for the subsidised daycare. If they want anything else, like character development in particular virtues, they might be best to stay home -- this study does not tell them anything about that.
And the details show that formal infant care benefits some children more than others: girls, children from two-parent homes and those with better-educated mothers -- and also less socially advantaged children (from single parent homes, for instance).

That children looked after by grandparents scored “significantly higher” on vocabulary than those in any other form of childcare can be put down to the one-to-one factor (formal care by professional nannies also improved vocabulary somewhat) and to the relationship, no doubt. Says Dr Kirstine Hansen of the Millennium study: "Grandparents tend to make more of an effort to sit down and talk to children to make up for lack of physical activity, but there's also some evidence that they are more likely to use better grammar, have better vocabulary themselves and correct children more, unlike other people."

Dr Hansen also acknowledges the question of how much these differences at age three matter. She says “it might be that they equal out when they’re exposed to the education system”, although she hastens to add that “cognitive ability at age three is an established predictor of cognitive outcomes later on”.
How important that is depends rather on how you want your child’s cognitive powers to be exercised, and that depends on values and virtues, things which are best transmitted by someone who loves the child. Grandparents would seem, on the whole, to be the best stand-ins for parents in this respect. (There's a link to the published study on the Guardian webpage.) ~ Guardian, Feb 10



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