The Science of Mother's Day

Some sad orphans
Some surprising rats
Those orphans again
Day care blues
Mice and men


Does day care harm children?
This old question has gained relevance with the increasing number of working mothers. In 1975, 39 percent of mothers in United States worked, compared to 64 percent today. Does all this time away from the presumed primary parent harm children? After all, rat pups separated for long periods from their mothers show abnormally strong stress reactions.

Securely Attached!
Psychologists use "attachment" to describe how children react to a brief separation from mom. Children who respond positively to mother after her return are called "securely attached;" those who avoid her or can't be comforted are called "insecurely attached." Insecure attachment has been linked to a variety of behavioral problems later in life.

Preamble completed! What did they find?

According to a large, ongoing study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development called the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, day care does not harm attachment across the board. But some interesting exceptions showed how combinations of factors can cause trouble. Among mothers judged less sensitive to their 15-month-old children, each of these factors was associated with insecure attachment: more hours of day care, low-quality care, or many different care situations. At 36 months, however, there was no indication that child care affected attachment.

The study's most remarkable finding may be the small impact of day care. "The most important finding is that the family influences -- even for those kids in child care outside the home -- is the dominant influence on the child," wrote Deborah Vandell, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "At 36 months, children were more sociable and less negative with peers if their mothers were more educated, more sensitive, and better adjusted psychologically."

Yet she points out that the quality of care does count; caregivers who were responsive, warm and stimulating helped foster positive social skills among children. Good child care could even compensate for family problems. Says Alison Clarke-Stewart, a researcher at the University of California-Irvine. "The negative effects of being in a single-parent family is alleviated by being in full-time care." Stewart repeated the researchers' mantra: "Everybody gains from being in high-quality care."

For the NICHD researchers, "parent" = "mom." Ever see a grown man change a diaper?

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The Why Files
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