Many working parents experience guilt about sending their young children off to day nursery, especially in light of research published in the 2000s that suggested that too much early childcare is associated with later behavioural problems. However, a new study in the International Journal of Behavioural Development paints a more positive picture – the more time children spent in day nursery before the age of two (defined as group-based childcare outside the home), the better their cognitive performance when they were tested at 51 months. Based on their findings, the researchers – Jacqueline Barnes and Edward Melhuish at Birkbeck, University of London – suggest that the UK Government should consider rolling out free childcare provision at an earlier age (in the UK at present, limited free childcare doesn’t begin until age three).
The findings come from 978 children and their families who were recruited between 1998 and 2001; 217 of the children received varying amounts of group-based nursery care before the age of two. The children’s cognitive abilities were assessed at 18 months and 51 months.
The types and amounts of early non-parental childcare that the children received in the home (for example, time being looked after by grandparents or a childminder) were mostly unrelated to their later cognitive abilities. But group-based childcare outside of the home before the age of two was linked with superior cognitive abilities at age 51 months, especially non-verbal abilities, and the earlier in life it started, and the more of it per week, the better. This held true even after controlling for the children’s cognitive abilities at 18 months, and after controlling for the influence of important demographic factors such as mothers’ education. The quality of the group-based childcare didn’t seem to impact this beneficial effect, although information on quality of care was only available for some of the children.
The sample included a disproportionate proportion of advantaged families, but in a sense the researchers said this adds to the interest of the results – it means the benefits of early group-based childcare are found even for children who have comfortable home environments.
It’s worth highlighting that aspects of the home environment were also relevant to children’s cognitive development. For example, the link between maternal responsiveness during a child’s first year and the child’s later cognitive abilities was stronger than the link between more early group-based childcare and later cognitive abilities. But the importance of the new finding comes from the fact that the early group-based childcare seemed to have “small but significant” beneficial effects even after taking maternal factors such as this into account. The researchers said these benefits of early nursery care “may be related to the fact that group contexts are likely to provide interactions with a wider range of people, both adults and children, and also a greater choice of activities if good quality is maintained.”
Barnes, J., & Melhuish, E. (2016). Amount and timing of group-based childcare from birth and cognitive development at 51 months: A UK study International Journal of Behavioral Development DOI: 10.1177/0165025416635756
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