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Is Day Care Beneficial for Children Under the Age of 5?

by Jaime Budzienski

Parenthood is full of tough decisions -- chief among them is whether to send your young child to day care. It can be downright agonizing for some moms simply because the thought of leaving a precious little one with a complete stranger can be a bit unnerving. As it turns out, if the day care is of high quality, it can indeed be beneficial to your child, academically, physically and socially. Like anything, there are also some downsides, particularly if the day care provides a lower quality of care.

Benefits

If you're nervous about enrolling your tot or preschooler in day care, don't be. A long-running study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development shows that young children who received high-quality child care scored slightly higher on measures of academic and cognitive achievement as teens. They're also more likely to be cooperative and assertive, and because they have to get along with many different children, they learn they don't always come first and how to form friendships. Additionally, while kids who go to day care may get more germs than those who don't, they're more likely to have strong immune systems and have protection against chronic conditions like allergies, asthma and leukemia, according to a study from the University of California at Berkeley. The study found that day care-attending children are 30 percent less likely to develop the most common type of childhood leukemia -- and the researchers theorize the immune boost they get from day care may be the reason.

Drawbacks

While day care can be enriching for your child, it isn't all rainbows and sunshine, unfortunately. The NICHD study also found that children who spent the most hours in day care had a slightly greater tendency toward impulsiveness and risk-taking at age 15 than teens who spent less time there. A study from the University of Minnesota found that out of 150 3 and 4 year olds in home day care settings, 40 percent had elevated levels of cortisol -- a stress hormone -- particularly when the care giver was intrusive or controlling and didn't provide many opportunities for free play. The girls with elevated levels of the hormone acted more anxious and vigilant, while the boys acted angry and aggressive.

Quality Care

You know quality day care will benefit your child's development, but maybe you aren't sure what it looks like. The Zero to Three website asserts there are certain hallmarks of quality care for which to be on the lookout. For one, your child's caregiver should be loving and responsive, respect your child's individuality and provide an age-appropriate and stimulating environment. When observing a program, home or center, the experts at Zero to Three suggest asking yourself the following questions: Do staff members get training in child development? Do they answer children's questions patiently? Do they ask children questions? Is a daily schedule posted, so kids know what to expect? Are toys well organized, so kids can choose what interests them? Are you welcome to drop in anytime? Would your child feel comfortable about going there -- and would you feel good about leaving her there? This criteria should be able to guide you toward a day care that's of good quality and will provide your kiddo with opportunities for learning and growth.

Red Flags

It's tough to imagine a place that opens its door to young children but isn't a warm or stimulating environment. Unfortunately, these day cares exist, so it's important to have your antenna up. If a caregiver doesn't answer your questions about the daily routine or isn't responsive to your child, if your child seems moody or withdrawn or is having problems eating or sleeping, or if you simply have a bad feeling -- these are warning signs that the day care isn't of good quality. Trust your instincts, and keep looking for a day care with which you and your kiddo are both comfortable.

About the Author

Jaime Budzienski has contributed essays and articles to the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," "Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine" and the "Boston Parents Paper." She holds a B.F.A. in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and a master's degree in education from UMASS Boston.

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