December 6, 2022
by Patricia Tomasi
A new study in the Journal of Child Development looked at whether more hours in center-based care cause more externalizing problems.
“This study revisits the question of whether increasing a child’s time in center-based care leads to increases in problem behaviors,” study author Catalina Rey-Guerra told us. “We decided to revisit this topic because, for the last four decades, there have been a lot of disagreements around the answer to this question.”
The debate has been mostly due to the fact that the majority of studies are purely correlational, leaving open many alternative explanations as to why children who spend large amounts of time in center care could be at risk other than due to center care per se. There has also been a problem of overreliance on a few studies from the U.S., which leaves concerns on whether these studies are representative of children’s experiences outside of the U.S.
“With this said, we were hoping to contribute to the field in both areas by providing rigorous tests of whether more time spent in center-based care increases children’s problem behaviors, and using data from seven studies from five countries,” Rey-Guerra told us. “The research literature on this topic has traditionally been grounded in attachment theory about parent-child relationships, and in social learning theory about how children respond to—and learn from—others around them.”
With this particular study, researchers were focused on robustness of earlier empirical findings that more time spent in child care is associated with more behavior problems. The researchers’ hypothesis is more driven by empirical findings than any particular theory.
To test their hypothesis, they wanted to address correlational studies main limitation. Results are only valid if all the correct alternative explanations have been taken into account, which is an issue that cannot be empirically known given that there might be potential for unobserved explanations that cannot be measured. This can include but is not limited to, unmeasured parental practices or the family environment.
“We used analytic techniques that allowed us to take into account some of these alternative explanations, producing results that are more robust,” Rey-Guerra told us. “In our primary analyses, we compare children to themselves over time. If a child spends more time in child care at, for example, age three than they did at age two, we would expect more behavior problems at age three than age two if there was a direct causal effect.”
By comparing children to themselves over time, researchers can—by design—remove many of the differences between children and families that may bias the estimates. Beyond this primary test of their theory, researchers also did a number of other tests, all with results aligned with those of their primary test.
“Regarding the issue of generalizing the results to children growing up in contexts outside of the US, and answering calls to increase replication efforts in the field, we used the same statistical procedures across the seven studies, and exploited very similar measurements of our key variables,” Rey-Guerra told us. “Therefore, since the results are consistent across a different countries with varying early education systems, social support systems, and labor market regulations, we are now more confident than we used to be that these results can be generalized across high-income countries.”
Researchers found no relation between spending time in center-based care and children’s externalizing behaviors consistently across the seven studies. Previous research using advanced analytical approaches to account for other alternative explanations as to why children who spend large amounts of time in center care could be at risk other than due to center care per se had found similar results so researchers were not surprised.
“I think this topic is most relevant for parents that need or want to join the labor force, but are concerned that child care might be harmful for their children,” Rey-Guerra told us. “Our findings are reassuring for these parents and speak both about the direct positive effects that attending child care might have on children, as well as the indirect positive effects through their parents being able to participate in the workforce without the fear of any harmful effects to their child.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com