The benefits of formal care

Blog Image for article The benefits of formal care

Informal caregivers and child-minders, like babysitters and grandparents, have much to offer when it comes to caring for young children, but now a French study has suggested that those who attend quality centre-based childcare or had formal carers may develop better social skills and behaviour than those who don't.

How did researchers reach this conclusion?

To gain insights into how early childcare may impact behaviour, researchers:

  • Examined the data for 1,428 children taking part in a French study called EDEN
  • Tracked the children's emotional development from birth up to the age of eight
  • Asked parents to answer questions, when the children were three, five-and-a-half and eight, about any behavioural and emotional problems their child had
  • Asked parents what type of care their child had had up to the age of three, such as formal care provided by a nursery, daycare centre or professionally-staffed crèche, or informal care provided by a family member, family caregivers, friends or a child-minder

What were their findings in percentage terms?

In terms of the type of early childcare used, parents reported that:

  • Just over 44 per cent of their children had been looked after by a child-minder
  • Just under 26 per cent had gone to formal care
  • Nearly 30 per cent had been cared for by family members or friends

In terms of social skills and behavioural problems, results from the questionnaire indicated that:

  • 15.5 per cent of the children had 'persistently high levels of conduct problems
  • Just over 15 per cent were hyperactive or had low attention spans
  • 16 per cent had emotional issues
  • Almost seven per cent had trouble making friends
  • Just over 13 per cent had poor social skills

What effect did informal and formal care have on young children?

This is the big question and, overall, researchers found that children who attended a nursery, day care centre or crèche, and especially those who'd gone for more than a year, were less likely to have emotional and behavioural problems, and had better psychological health than those who were looked after by family or friends.

They were also more likely to have better social skills. Conversely, those looked after by a child-minder were more likely to have behavioural problems.

What other findings came out of the study?

Researchers also found that:

  • Children seemed to benefit most from formal childcare if their mother had gone to college or university, or was not depressed
  • Girls seemed to gain more from formal childcare than boys, but boys in formal care had fewer emotional problems than boys in informal care
  • Boys looked after by child-minders appeared to have more behavioural problems

While having available informal care like family caregiving is much cheaper (or in most cases free) and is easily available, formal caregivers are trained and qualified to handle a child's care and are thus more likely to handle the impact on the physical health and mental health that caregiver stress brings.

In summary, the research indicated that young children who attend a nursery, day care centre or professionally-staffed crèche in France may experience better psychological development than those looked after by family, friends or a child-minder in their early years. It's worth keeping in mind that this was an observational study – which means that the researchers can't establish the cause of their findings – and, of course, things may be different in Australia. 

However, generally speaking, there is the idea that play, praise, reading time, rules and quality child-care-giver interactions in formal care can positively affect a child's behaviour and social skills. Which, as the French say, is 'très fantastique!'


British Medical Journal

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