Does daycare harm children's development?

Studies show long hours in daycare lead to high cortisol levels, harm children's emotional development.

Shoshana Heiman,

Children in daycare
Children in daycare
iStock

A 2008 report from UNICEF's Innocenti Office of Research investigated the effects of daycare on children in the world's richest and most developed countries.

Psychotherapist Susan Gerhardt said, "What seems to be most crucial for the baby is the extent to which the parent or caregiver is emotionally available and present for him, to notice his signals and to regulate his states."

"The baby’s mother is primed to do these things for her baby by her own hormones, and is more likely to have the intense identification with the baby’s feelings that is needed, provided she has the inner resources to do so.

"Babies come into the world with the need for social interaction to help develop and organize their brains.

"If they don’t get enough empathetic, attuned attention – in other words, if they don’t have a parent who is interested and reacting positively to them – then important parts of their brain simply will not develop as well."

A child's ability to self-regulate is a result of parent-child interactions.

According to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, the prefrontal cortex is not ready for integrative thinking and social interaction until between five to seven years of age.

"It only gets wired at between five and seven years of age," Neufeld said.

As a result, children continue to need an emotionally available and present parent or caregiver until they are school age. This caregiver needs to understand the children's emotional cues and be able to support the integration process.

Nine separate studies from Holland's Leiden University show that the more hours children spend outside their home, the more their stress and panic levels rise.

A danger to emotional and cognitive functioning

In the 1990s, researchers began to use physiological measurements, especially cortisol levels, in order to measure daycare children's reactions to stress. These children's cortisol levels provided objective measurement of stress levels and emotional reactions. Internal and external threats raise cortisol levels above normal range.

The HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical) axis is sensitive and responsive to emotional and psychological triggers, and is also closely connected to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in emotions, learning, and memory.

A growing body of research is showing that constant exposure to stress during early childhood can pose a risk to future emotional and cognitive functions. (Elsevier: Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2006)

These nine studies all had the same basic result: Children in daycare have higher cortisol levels than children who stay at home. The younger the child is and the more hours he spends outside the home, the higher his cortisol levels will be.

Several factors influence children's response to stress and their cortisol production. Among these are:

- The long hours during which children are separated from their parents;

- the need to re-organize their behavior to match the expectations of several different adults;

- a social environment made up of very young children, which requires frequent emotional arousals;

- the fact that the child himself has not yet developed the ability to self-regulate.

Separation from the mother

In 1991, the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development wrote that "The more time children spend in daycare centers between birth and age four and a half, the less likely they will be to get along with others and the more likely they are to be rebellious and aggressive."

Studies done between 2002-2004 show that a child's separation from its mother causes long-term psychological changes, including increased cortisol levels. Stressors include lack of touch from the mother, emotional loss, inability to adapt to the attachment figure, and physiological responses which raise the chances of falling ill with stress-related diseases.

Other stressors which raise children's cortisol levels are social contexts which are high in rejection.

In daycare centers and preschools, childcare groups are large and the children are more vulnerable to socially threatening situations than they would be in any other environment. Social rejection is a cause of higher cortisol levels in children aged 3-5.

We are still not sure how often high cortisol levels influence stress regulation at a later stage of development, but the suspicion is that the lack of close parent-child interaction creates long-term effects of depression, hyperactivity, suboptimal cognitive and language development, poorer-than-expected academic achievements, and different forms of mental health damage.

In addition, such a child is at risk for failing to develop faith in others, as well as failing to develop maturity and social integration. We are also witness to a spike in behavioral issues.

The parents' right to decide

We have a tendency to rely on the "system" which we assume makes the best decisions for our children. However, many other factors come into the picture, which push our children's and families' needs to the sidelines.

It's obvious that parents need to provide for their families, and often both parents need or want to work. However, it's come time to provide options which reflect what is healthy for our children and their development, healthy for us as parents, and healthy for the entire family unit.

Providing such options will allow us to create a healthy society.

Parents have a right to choose the best care for their children. If we provide parents with support and ideal conditions, they have the best intuition and are able to best deal with their children's needs. We need to provide today's parents with this authority and to support them.

We cannot allow the option of caring for children at home to be taken away from parents, or too hard for them to manage.




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