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For immediate use

November 7, 1999

Research: day care affects mother-child interactions

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Working women, especially those with babies, sometimes worry that leaving their small children to the care of others will affect bonds with their child.

Such concerns may be valid, according to new research showing that longer hours in such care means mothers and the youngest children are less attuned to one another. The effect is small, however, and may not cause meaningful differences in such relationships, says researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and elsewhere.

Longer hours of child care tended to correspond with somewhat less sensitive interactions between mothers and children at least up until age 3, investigators found. They recommend that women try to set aside more quality time with little ones to make up for possible adverse effects of child care. The good news, they say, is that the quality of care had a positive effect on the mother-child relationship.

"This study showed infants and toddlers in better quality care tended to have slightly better relationships with their mothers than those in lower-quality care," said Dr. Martha Cox, senior scientist at UNC-CH’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center and a principal investigator. "To put these associations in perspective, we found that the mothers’ level of education was a much stronger predictor of the mother being sensitively attuned to the baby than either the length of time in child care or its quality."

Cox, also research professor in psychology, and Dr. Margaret Burchinal, director of the Graham center’s design and statistical unit, led UNC-CH’s participation in the study. Dr. Margart Tresch Owen of the University of Texas at Dallas coordinated the new paper, the latest in a series to come out of the continuing project, which involves 10 U.S. centers.

The study evaluated the effects of child care on mother-child interactions until the latter reached 36 months. Early education experts consider it the largest and most carefully controlled research of its kind. A report on the findings appears in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, an American Psychological Association journal.

Researchers followed 1,274 mothers and their infants from birth, carefully observing interactions between them at home and at day-care centers. They also evaluated youngsters with sophisticated tests of language and mental development and interviewed mothers about their levels of depression and their toddlers’ behavior.

"Another thing we found was that on average more advantaged mothers – women with more education and higher incomes – are more likely to be sensitive with their kids and to be working more hours outside the home," Burchinal said. "We only find that working more hours is related to less sensitivity when we compare mothers with similar levels of education and income, but not when we compare mothers regardless of their education and income."

Other findings were that:

Other results from the study suggest that the small negative effects of child care were not big enough to disrupt secure attachments between infants and mothers, researchers concluded.

"As a parent, I would take these findings not as bad news, but as encouragement to me to maximize the time I spend with my very young children," Owen said. "More time is better than less time."

Most of the children, who are from racially and socially diverse families, now are in the third grade and will be followed at least through the sixth. For the new study, they were assessed at ages 6, 15, 24 and 36 months.

Investigators considered their sample moderately but not perfectly representative of U.S. mothers and their children, Cox said. Strengths of the study include its large sample size, the repeated direct assessments and the diversity of subjects, a quarter of whom were minorities.

Besides UNC-CH, which follows 130 children, other data collection centers are located at the universities of Arkansas at Little Rock, California at Irvine, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Washington at Seattle, Wisconsin and Temple University. Research Triangle Institute staff in Research Triangle Park, N.C., also participate in the project.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded and helped design it.

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Note: Cox can be reached at (919) 966-3509, Burchinal at 966-5059. Owen’s number is (972) 883-6876.

Frank Porter Graham Center Contact: Loyd Little, (919) 966-0867.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.