- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The more time young children spend in day care, the more likely they are to be aggressive or disobedient, says the latest report from an ongoing federal study, released today.

This link “occurred across all family backgrounds and all types and quality of care,” said the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which involves more than 1,000 children and is conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

The study does not, however, say that long hours in day care cause behavioral problems, cautioned Sarah L. Friedman, one of the NICHD researchers.

There are many influences on a preschooler’s behavior, with a mother’s sensitivity to the child being especially important, she said yesterday.

The NICHD study also showed that “the vast majority” of preschoolers “are doing just fine,” Ms. Friedman said.

Almost all the 4-year-olds — including those with elevated levels of aggression or disobedience — scored within the normal range.

Thus, even though more hours spent in child care is linked to higher scores in problem behaviors in some children, the scores “still don’t hit the level that is in any way worrisome,” she said.

It’s like a normal-weight person who gains 3 pounds — “it’s not something to worry about,” she added.

Problem behaviors, according to the NICHD study, include disobeying adults, destroying other people’s possessions, arguing, fighting, lying, cheating, screaming, bragging or bullying.

The NICHD study was started in 1991, looking at more than 1,000 children to assess the impact of lengthy, nonmaternal care on infants and children. Its latest findings, which were first reported in 2001, appear in the new issue of Child Development, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development.

NICHD researchers found evidence of the importance of quality day care: Children whose caregivers were warm, positive, sensitive and provided intellectual stimulation had fewer problem behaviors than other children.

This finding could be pertinent to congressional discussions this month, as the Senate Finance Committee takes up a welfare bill with child care components. Earlier this year, the House passed a welfare bill that adds $2 billion over five years to the $4.8 billion in existing child care funding.

The Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy group for children, believes that federal child care programs are grossly underfunded and has urged Congress to increase funding by $11.25 billion over five years, plus set aside a sizable portion to increase the quality of child care.

However, the NICHD study had a caveat about high-quality child care: It found that the quality of child care “did not eliminate the link between hours in care and behavior problems.” It also found that the link between long hours of care and higher levels of problem behaviors was particularly strong among children in center-based day care.

Author Julie Shields said the NICHD findings show that while high-quality day care is better than low-quality day care and some hours of quality day care — around 10 a week or less, parents should avoid putting their children in child care when they are too young or for too long a period.

Parents and children do better when the parents arrange their work schedules so they are with young children most of the time and use child care services part-time, said Mrs. Shields, an attorney and working mother who wrote “How To Avoid the Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Shared Parenting and Making It Work.”

Deborah Perry Piscione of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum said that working mothers need more flexibility in the workplace. Innovations such as telecommuting and taking overtime as compensatory time should allow mothers to have more time — and more energy — to spend with their young children, she said.

NICHD researchers said they didn’t know what the optimal number of day care hours might be. Other studies have suggested a limit of 20 or 30 hours a week to avoid problem behaviors.

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