A New Battle Over Day Care

Are young children more aggressive when they spend a lot of time in day care? That appeared to be the disturbing conclusion of a study of more than 1,100 children in 10 U.S. cities released last week by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Researchers found that 17 percent of children who spent more than 30 hours a week in nonmaternal care had behavior problems (such as hitting, interrupting others or bullying). These findings generally held up whether families were rich or poor. Only 6 percent of children who spent less than 10 hours a week in day care had similar problems.

The study reignited a long-term debate over the effects of child care and made many working parents anxious. But researchers caution against an overly simplistic interpretation of the results. "The easy answer is to cut the number of hours children are in care," says Sarah Friedman, scientific coordinator of the study. However, Friedman says, scientists do not yet know whether the hours in child care alone or other factors caused the children to behave more aggressively. For example, she says, children in extended care may not get as much attention from stressed-out parents at home, she said, which could also cause behavior problems.

The study, which began 10 years ago and is ongoing, also found positive benefits for kids who are in day-care centers (rather than in family day care or with babysitters). These youngsters had stronger language skills and better short-term memory--both of which would help them do better in school. Researchers said that was probably because caregivers in centers have more training and education than home-based care providers. Nationally, about 30 percent of children are in day-care centers, while 15 percent are in family day care (in the provider's home) and only about 5 percent are cared for in their own homes by babysitters.

Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that she hoped policymakers would be guided by this positive evidence as well as data showing behavior problems. "The Bush administration is in the budget process right now," she says. "They have already sent a signal that they are diverting funding that was for child care. This might encourage more of the same, depending on what kind of constituent mail they get."