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An article in The Times and plagerized here suggests that it may do children permanent mental harm to be left in nursery (daycare) when under the age of three.

Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swedish sociologist, warned MPs last night that babies and toddlers aged under the age of three should not be in daycare, and Sweden was now seeing a range of social problems caused by sending children to nursery before they were ready.

This concurs with what my wife has been reading in a few baby books, which may or may not have been particularly scientific about their claims.

I'm concerned as we're about to put our nearly one-year-old daughter into a nursery (daycare) for 3 days a week. For the other two days she'll be with her mother and at the weekends, both of us. We've carefully selected one which had a very home-like atmosphere, in which the children seemed happy and confident (although the food is not good).

So I'd like to know how much other evidence there is of permanent harm to a child in this situation, particularly for 3-days per week. Annecdotes may be interesting, but I'm especially looking for some research, whether it confirms or contradicts the above.

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The problem with this type of research is that it is impossible (or at least reprehensibly unethical) to do actual controlled scientific research. Instead, research is restricted to broad statistics that cannot distinguish correlation from causation. Even if studies were found that showed children sent to daycare are far more likely to have "social problems" (however that might be defined), daycare may simply be a symptom of the same underlying problem, rather than the cause (i.e. maybe the same factors that make kids more likely to have problems make parents more likely to use daycare). –  Beofett Mar 14 '13 at 12:55
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I would like to know exactly what constitutes a child being "ready" for daycare. What is appropriate for one child may not be appropriate for another. Are we to assume that all one-year-olds aren't ready for daycare? I haven't read the article, but does the author give a set for criteria for determining exactly when a child might be "ready" for daycare? –  Meg Coates Mar 14 '13 at 13:15
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Looking at the article, it seems that Himmelstrand is basing this claim off of correlating nation-wide academic performance and rates of disorder with a general increase in prevalence of daycare enrollment. This is pure correlation, and even Himmelstrand places the underlying cause on the parents, rather than the daycare: "It is because daycare means parents have lost a grip on their responsibilities. They cannot set limits." –  Beofett Mar 14 '13 at 13:21
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@Boefett - especially because the sociologist was speaking on behalf of a lobbying group for stay-at-home moms, it would be difficult to take him as unbiased. That said there is research on the subject - and it's conflicting! –  justkt Mar 14 '13 at 13:30
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Interesting question, but I'd like to take objection to the wording. I've foster parented truly "damaged" and "permanently harmed" children. Putting kids in daycare in the same category just feels wrong. –  Karl Bielefeldt Mar 14 '13 at 20:26
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2 Answers 2

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Some of the main proponents of attachment theory, which is a theory of how children develop a relationship with their primary caregiver and how that impacts their relationships throughout the rest of their life, are generally opposed to daycare, as described in this article. If you look into attachment theory and daycare you will find more information from that perspective. For example here is a lecture delivered by Richard Bowlby in 2007 on the issue of stress in daycare.

That said a recent overview of the most recent large-scale studies on children 0-3 placed in any sort of care situation other than at-home with a parent as primary caregiver had mixed results. In some studies daycare could exacerbate existing problems if a mother was not a caring parent, but not cause them. In others daycare was indeed found to have adverse affects by itself. In yet others an earlier use of daycare was actually better than a later one. The conclusion that the authors of that overview drew was that there is not yet a simple answer to the question.

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Remo H. Largo, one of the most eminent Swiss developmental psychologists, has the following opinion on the matter:

Children need continuity. It does not matter to them, who provides the continuous psycho-social care. Children grow up happy and healthy with their parents, a single parent, their grandparents, adopted parents, foster parents, or whoever is taking good care of them.

From this follow two rules regarding child-care:

(1) You have to give the child ample time to get used to new caregivers.

(2) The caregivers in day-care must be the same one or two persons always.

Problems with day-care arise because parents and child care workers push the child to let go of the parent too quickly; and because most day-care centers shift their workforce around based on organisational needs, ignoring the needs of the children.

So (a) if you can find day-care that provides continuity, and (b) if you give your child the time it needs to let you go of its own free will, and finally (c) if you are prepared and ready to let that caretaker become equally important to your child as you are, then your child will be happy and prospering in day-care. If one of these three conditions is missing, then you should wait until your child is old enough to endure your absence without harm.


The problem with research into this matter is that almost all studies simply correlate "day-care versus no day-care" with psychological problems and ignore the question of the quality of day-care completely. It is a fact that most day-care is lacking the continunity that a child needs, but it is not true that day-care per se is the problem.

Largo discusses his opinion (and outlines the relevant research) in his book on divorce (Glückliche Scheidungskinder, "Happily Divorced Kids"), a situation where the same problem arises. Unfortunately I don't believe this book is available in English.

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