"Quality day care" has become the refrain of child advocates in answer to the question, Who's minding the babies? It's an increasingly urgent matter, considering that more than half the mothers of children under a year old now work. Not to worry—at least if you believe our leading newspapers, which couldn't have put a more positive spin on a major new study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. As the April headlines proclaimed, GOOD DAY CARE FOUND TO AID COGNITIVE SKILLS OF CHILDREN (New York Times), IN DAY CARE, QUALITY COUNTS (Washington Post), and GOOD EARLY CARE HAS A HUGE IMPACT ON KIDS (Wall Street Journal).
Had reporters dug a little deeper, they might have found themselves questioning the quality-day-care dogma. The study's most significant finding? Day care, "quality" or otherwise, had strikingly little effect on the 1,356 children studied from birth to age three. Take vocabulary comprehension, one of the areas the study's press release touted. Quality day care (defined largely by the amount of talking and affection caregivers provide) accounted for only 2 percent out of a total 40 percent of individual differences in children at 36 months. When asked about this very small showing for quality care, Sarah L. Friedman, the study's representative at the NICHD, protested, "Every little bit matters. These numbers are statistically significant."
But significance is where you look for it. The press ignored the fact that the study offers little evidence to support the prevailing wisdom that fine early day-care programs will close the gap in cognitive development between children of poor, uneducated mothers and those of the educated middle class. The few small gains in cognitive and language development were constant across the economic spectrum. At least in the child's first three years—and for the English-speaking mothers over 18 to whom the sample was limited—variables like household income, mother's education, and psychological health far exceeded the impact of good day care, no matter how many hours a child attended. As psychologist Mark Applebaum, a member of the research team, put it: "It's like real estate agents who talk about location, location, location. Only this is family, family, family."
Does the study at least reassure working parents that they are doing their kids no harm? The answer is only a cautionary maybe. One troubling finding does show that mothers of children in day care over 30 hours a week—the situation for two-thirds of those studied—are less sensitive to their children than mothers of children in care for fewer hours, though again, the differences are tiny. In truth, the study goes to great lengths to avoid confronting the effects of full-time institutional day care, an increasingly common arrangement. Not only does it lump together all children in care over 30 hours a week, it also mixes together every kind of "nonmaternal care," throwing professional center-based care in with at-home baby-sitting by grandparents, aunts, and neighbors. At least with the data we have so far, it is impossible to distinguish between the baby of a teacher who stays with grandma from 9 AM to 3 PM, and the baby of a lawyer who stays in a day-care center from dawn to dusk. In short, contrary to the headlines, the NICHD study is barely about day care as it is commonly understood at all.