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Author Elizabeth Stone called the decision to have a child and “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” momentous. So too is choosing where your heart will hang out Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while you’re working. For many it comes down to daycare or a nanny. Deciding the between the two is no easy task. The parents of the 33 percent of children under age five who are tended to by someone else have to consider not only educational impact, health issues, and safety but also convenience and financial concerns. (Daycare costs more than public college per year in 35 states and live-out nannies set you back an average of $36,600 gross). It’s all enough to make you wish Mary Poppins would float down, pull out a note from her magic bag with the “right” answer, and let you get on with it, free from second-guessing.
While daycare kids don’t receive the one-on-one attention of a nanny, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development reports they may be getting an educational advantage. In their Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which followed more than 1,000 kids from infancy to age 15 starting in 1991, the organization found that high-quality child care appears to provide a small boost to academic performance, perhaps by “fostering the early acquisition of school readiness skills,” says one of the researchers, James A. Griffin.
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Another survey conducted by the institute, on the relation of child care to cognitive and language development, found that “cumulative experience in center-based care was associated with better outcomes than was participation in other types of care.”
Daycare kids may also score a social benefit that exclusively nannied youngsters miss out on. Researchers from the Netherland’s Radboud University Nijmegen reported in the scientific journal PLoS ONE that “children who are exposed to more days in playschool may develop more efficient communication skills because of the greater variety of social situations that they encounter.”
But such advantages for the 2.6 million children under age 5 that the U.S. Census tallies as attending daycare centers – and 1.6 million cared for by non-relatives in “family daycares” – also come with drawbacks.
Young kids in group care tend to get sick more often than the 736,000 little ones that the Census estimates are cared for by nannies. “There is consistent evidence that more formal arrangements with more children pose a health risk,” levels Kathleen McCartney, PhD in “Current Research on Child Care Effects” in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Children attending center care and child care homes have higher rates of early communicable illnesses, including ear infections, upper respiratory illnesses, and gastrointestinal illnesses.”
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Aggression is an issue reported with daycare kids too. The Early Child Care and Youth Development study also reveals that teens who had spent the most hours in child care in their first four-and-a-half years showed a slightly greater tendency toward impulsiveness and risk-taking in their mid teens than did peers who spent less time in child care.
What the Experts Say
Child development expert Jay Belsky, long involved with the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, doesn’t sugarcoat the negatives he sees with daycare. “We have found evidence,” Belsky told The Guardian in London, where he formerly directed the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck University,“that lots of hours spent in any type of daycare, or lots of exposure to group-based care, across the infant, toddler and preschool years, predicted somewhat more… disobedience in children, somewhat poorer relations with teachers and most recently more risk-taking including sexual and alcohol utilization, including drugs, and more impulsivity at age 15.”
Another researcher involved in the NICHD’s long-term study cautions that it’s important to put this data in perspective. “It’s not going to mean that each child is going to have 0.05 percent probability of being more aggressive,” Aletha Huston explains in Slate. “What probably is represented here is that some kids are responding in that way, and a lot of kids aren’t.”
Yale School of Medicine associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology, Walter S. Gilliam, argues the most important thing is actually that parents feel comfortable with whatever choice they make, daycare or nanny. “When it comes to quality of care, it really boils down to the relationship between that child and the people who are taking care of that child,” he tells The New York Times. “Regardless of what choice you make, you need to form a strong relationship with the child care provider and feel O.K. about it, because your child will be reading those cues.”
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What Parents Say
“With the cost between the two being about equal, the decision for us to send our daughter to daycare was mostly because we were a bit risk averse and not trusting of a stranger with our 3-month-old baby all day long. We felt it was safer at daycare where there is incentive for them to tell you if your baby bumped her head or was dropped, versus a nanny who may choose not to tell you. People suggested having a nanny cam but who has the time to watch 10 hours of footage when you get home from work?” – Anneloes Hesen
“For me, a nanny was the only way to go. I’m no germaphobe, but I was terrified about the germs my son would be exposed to in daycare at such a young age. He was a preemie and more susceptible to colds, flus and viruses. There was also the convenience factor. I couldn’t imagine not having the flexibility of being late once in awhile. A nanny can stay late, work overtime, help with house chores. That is a luxury I desperately needed as a new mom.” – Ericka Pitters
“From a practical standpoint, taking a child to day care is a lot of work. Food and bottles need to be prepared ahead of time and if your child gets sick, you will need to go and get them. On the other hand, the day care doesn’t close, take vacation, call in sick, or quit with little notice. Ultimately we decided to put our daughter in day care because we value the staffing. We also loved the social aspect. Our daughter learned to play with others much faster than kids who stayed home with either a nanny or parent.” – Sarah Upbin
The Bottom Line
The choice depends on your values and priorities. Daycare has developmental benefits but will never provide children with nurturing attention one-on-one. And nannies can’t deliver the socialization that a shared setting provides. The challenge is to find true quality care – that means childcare centers are licensed, staffed in proper child-to-caregiver ratio (1 to 3 for infants between six and 18 months) and communicative with parents, or a nanny who passes a thorough background check and is experienced and attentive to your child – that works for your family. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ report on Quality Early Education and Child Care from Birth to Kindergarten concludes: “When care is consistent, developmentally sound and emotionally supportive, there is a positive effect on the child and the family.”