My mom was a stay-at-home mom who raised my older brothers and me while my dad worked, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t do the same thing when I had a child.
Today, I’m not the stay-at-home mom I thought I would be, but my husband and I still chose not to send our child to day care. In fact, before my son’s birth, my mom agreed to care for him when I went back to work.
Unlike us, many families send their kids to day care – and it turns out, providing children with that group-care experience could offer big benefits. Researchers from Sorbonne University in Paris tracked 1,428 children from birth until age 8, examining each child’s ability to make friends, their hyperactivity and inattentiveness, social skills, conduct and the kind of care they received up until age 3. In the end, they found children who attended day care before age 3 were more social and better behaved than those who did not.
“When they are exposed to group care, they have the ability to interact with other children, to develop friendships with peers, and simply learn how to get along with others and follow rules and instructions,” says Lisa Keiper, the former education director of Rainbow Child Care Centers.
Melody Stewart, director of professional development with AppleTree & Gilden Woods Early Care and Preschool, says she doesn’t necessarily believe kids are better behaved if they attend day care but that it does offer children the opportunity to interact and learn alongside peers.
“We’re giving them the tools to learn how to self-regulate and how to work through conflicts with their peers,” Stewart says.
Group-care settings provide structure and routine, the need to sit and learn in small groups, follow group instruction and more, she adds.
Still, some children don’t do well in a group setting, so being at day care could actually cause issues for a child later in life. Studies have found that children’s stress levels can increase when in care for more than eight hours, Keiper notes. The longer the child is in care for the day, the lesser chance they have to “reap the benefits of all the experiences they are exposed to.”
“I don’t think there’s one approach that is an answer for all,” Keiper says of child care options. “It has to do with the individual child’s temperament.”
The quality of care a child receives plays a role in how well they develop in that setting, too, so it’s important to choose a day care wisely.
“You want to make sure they meet quality standards and licensing standards,” says Kellye Wood, the director of early childhood with Oakland Schools. “Ultimately, it’s what you decide in your head, heart and gut is the right fit for your child.”
Help at home
Just because your child is at home with you or another caretaker doesn’t mean he or she has to miss out on opportunities to learn, grow and interact with others.
Great Start Collaborative – Oakland has developed an initiative known as Sing. Say. Point. Play. “These are four simple things that can help babies talk and children learn, ultimately, to read,” Wood says, which is one important step in school readiness.
As you’re reading to your child, point to and talk about the pictures, encourage him to touch the pictures and turn the pages of the book, and ask questions about the story you’re reading. Try to read daily and enjoy that time together.
“Get involved with your community,” Stewart says. “There are free community events all over that can give children those opportunities.”
At home, play is a perfect way to help social, emotional, language, physical and cognitive development. Try board games, puzzles or even a Nerf battle.
“Have fun with them and play with them. That piece is so important. They are learning so much,” Stewart says.
Think outside the box to get the wiggles out, Stewart adds, by doing an inside relay race, making patterns with spoons and forks, or having music and movement time with Tupperware.
“I think sometimes families feel like our children have to have all these big, fancy toys,” she says, but all parents have to do is use “everyday objects they already have in their home to encourage that play.”
And, since families don’t always know what milestones they should be hitting, Stewart says to consult your child’s pediatrician.
No matter which kind of child care you choose, Wood says, “It doesn’t mean if you need care outside of the home, your child is getting something inferior.” Or vice versa. It’s ultimately about being there for your child.
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.