Daycare or Nanny for Baby? The Bottom Line on What’s Best for Their Development


If you’ve decided you won’t be staying at home with your baby, how do you decide between a nanny and another kind of daycare?

Perspective No. 1: Infants and young children do best when one person gives them the care and attention they require. Not everyone can afford a nanny, obviously, but if you can find someone to be a consistent presence in your child’s life, that will come with all kinds of advantages. The main benefit is that your child will have an additional primary attachment figure she knows she can count on when you’re not there, and her needs will be tended to consistently.

Perspective No. 2: What matters most is quality. If you can find a good daycare center near you, that’s better than having a nanny who might or might not be adequately focused on the needs of your child. Plus, daycare centers have some accountability, because they have to be certified and provide a certain amount of education for the caregivers. Nannies might not even be trained in CPR, much less the basics of supportive child rearing. Also, daycare provides socialization opportunities that can benefit babies’ social and emotional development.

It’s really difficult to discuss what the science says about choosing a nanny as opposed to a daycare center. There is ample scientific literature comparing non-parental childcare with stay-at-home parents. But direct data demonstrating the nanny-daycare difference is much harder to come by.

One experiment, a French study published in 2018, compared children ranging in age from birth to three years in the care of one non-parental caregiver to those in center-based childcare. These children were in a cohort of 1,428 children who were followed from pregnancy to eight years of age. The study concluded that kids in the daycare centers were more likely to experience emotional, relational and social success than those looked after by a single non-parental caregiver and to exhibit fewer conduct problems. There were plenty of variables at play—for example, girls and children from families with a higher socioeconomic status reaped more benefits than boys and kids from lower-socioeconomic-status families—but overall, the childcare centers appeared to help kids reduce future social and emotional difficulties. However, the study’s conclusion emphasized that high-quality childcare is what produces the most advantageous outcomes. (More about that later.)

Most of the research on this subject focuses less on the “daycare or nanny” question, and more on the difference between kids being cared for in a “formal” arrangement (such as childcare centers, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten), on one hand, and in an “informal” arrangement (like home-based care outside a child’s home, or home-based care in the child’s home by a nanny, babysitter or unpaid family member), on the other.

Generally speaking, formal childcare produces more positive outcomes than informal care in terms of cognition and behavior. A significant reason for these differences is the regulatory oversight formal childcare centers are subject to. As one study put it, “Children enrolled in formal care experience higher quality with respect to all four categories we considered: caregiver characteristics, safety, activities and observed quality. We also note that quality is highest in arrangements subject to the most stringent regulations.”

I could point to many other studies that support these conclusions, but the problem is that these investigations aren’t precisely focused on our question here. For one thing, they’re broad, focusing on informal childcare in general, rather than just non-parental caregivers or nannies. In addition, the studies are often looking at preschoolers and older kids, not just babies.

In the absence of a clear and wide body of scientific literature to direct us, I can offer two key research-based principles to help guide you. First of all, what babies get from their families is crucial. Speaking generally, the research is clear that the most important factor when it comes to what’s best for babies down the road, in terms of behavior, health and cognition, is not the type of care they receive—from a childcare center, nanny, preschool, relative or even parent—but what the home experience is like. Much more important than where kids receive care is the degree to which they receive love, warmth, responsiveness, cognitive stimulation and so on when they’re at home. In other words, where they are cared for matters less than how they are cared for in their home environment by their parents and families.

The other key principle is not exactly shocking: quality matters. A lot. Study after study supports what you already know, that early childhood experiences shape kids and impact who they become, so the quality of those experiences matters profoundly. And I’m afraid that there’s plenty of research demonstrating how inconsistent that quality is when it comes to childcare of all kinds.

What matters more than anything is that you provide a consistent, loving, nurturing, enriching home environment, and that whatever childcare decision you make, you make it with quality in mind. Studies do seem to support the idea that formal daycare provides more consistent quality than informal childcare like what nannies and relatives might offer, but those conclusions are drawn from a wide range of situations. There’s no question that if you have access to and can afford a caring, high-quality nanny, that’s preferable to a third-rate childcare center. And the opposite is true as well, of course: A quality daycare center is definitely preferable to a nanny you can’t count on. Finally, try to obtain childcare that will provide as little turnover as possible when it comes to the person or people your child learns to depend on.

Excerpt from THE BOTTOM LINE FOR BABY by Tina Payne Bryson, copyright © 2020 Tina Payne Bryson, Inc. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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