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243 Church St, NW, Suite 300-A
Vienna, VA 22180

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What Kind of Childcare Is Best for My Preschooler?

Parents of infants and preschoolers have important decisions to make about who will care for their young children, and in what setting.   Knowing how children in daycare centers and home-based daycare differ from those not in daycare can help parents in making informed child care decisions. 


Both desirable and undesirable traits are found in children who have been in daycare compared to children with no daycare experience. 


Daycare fosters intellectual development for most children, but only temporarily.  Compared to children without daycare experience, children who have attended daycare programs:

  • achieve higher scores on intelligence tests
  • show better eye-hand coordination
  • play and explore more creatively
  • know more about the physical world
  • have more beginning arithmetic skills
  • can better recall and recite back facts
  • use & understand more advanced language

The advance is, on average, by 6 to 9 months over children who have not attended daycare programs.  However, these advances are only temporary.  By the end of first grade, children with no daycare experience have generally caught up to those who did.  Research to date does not support any long-term  intellectual advantage that follows from involvement in daycare. 


Compared to children without daycare experience, children who have attended daycare programs are, on the whole:

  • more confident
  • more outgoing
  • more assertive
  • more self-sufficient
  • more comfortable in new situations
  • more helpful and cooperative
  • more verbally expressive
  • less timid and fearful

They are also:

  • less polite
  • less agreeable
  • less compliant with adult requests
  • louder and more boisterous
  • more irritable
  • more rebellious

Balanced development of pro-social skills, it appears, is best developed with consistent and conscientious adult monitoring.  This is often more readily available in a child's own home or a small group setting. 


Infants need an abundance of physical care, loving interactions, and intellectual stimulation.  Research shows that infants in extensive daycare show less secure attachment to parents and higher levels of aggression and noncompliance in the preschool and early elementary school years than do children with no daycare. 
Many daycare settings are not prepared to provide infants with the level of loving care and responsiveness that they need.  For most infants, there are clear benefits if one parent can be home full- time or part-time, or if the infant is cared for by extended family members.  When work is not a choice and extended family members are not available, then warm, loving and highly responsive care in a setting with a minimum number of children is optimal. 
Many parents clearly understand this.  Among infants with working mothers, 57% are cared for by relatives or by parents exclusively, 20% are in family daycare, and only 14% are in center-based care.  For all preschoolers with working mothers, 30% are cared for by their own parents and 18% are cared for by relatives.  Some studies show a trend toward in-family daycare as the less-desirable tradeoffs of daycare become salient to parents. 


When out-of-home care is needed, daycare settings should be evaluated along a number of dimensions. 


Availability (location and hours) and affordability are often the first areas parents seek in daycare settings.  Other program considerations are:     

  • how home-like the environment
  • safety
  • equipment
  • group size
  • appropriate age range
  • age-appropriate activities
  • balanced daily schedule
  • program goals (social & school preparation)
  • promoting child development
  • nutritious snacks and meals
  • religious instruction, if desired
  • references are provided    

The organization of the setting (versus size) and the quality (versus quantity) of materials are important factors in aiding child development. 


A warm and loving style is essential for nurturance of young children.  Other staff considerations are:

  • communication between staff and parents is   open and ongoing
  • low staff turn-over
  • training and experience with children
  • low child-staff ratio
  • children appear happy and get along with staff
  • open policy toward parental visits and   involvement

The training and experience of daycare providers can significantly improve the quality of a child's experience.  However, a provider who enjoys children and has excellent intuition about working with them could be a preferred choice over some other providers.  Low staff turn-over is desirable, and can be evaluated inclusively by examining policies for wages and benefits which would encourage staff to remain with the program. 

While parents screen daycare settings for the adults who will be available, the influence of peers is just as important but impractical and difficult to assess.  An open and honest relationship with your daycare provider(s) will provide a foundation for discussing peer difficulties when and if they occur. 


When parents ask whether daycare is good for children, it is useful for them to remember that this is not a generic question and no generic response is appropriate.  Research findings can help, but what parents are really asking is: given who my child is (age, temperament, etc.) and my situation (both parents must work full-time, one parent can be home part-time, availability of extended family, etc.), is daycare necessary?  If not, is it desirable intellectually, socially, emotionally and behaviorally at this stage in my child's life?  And if it is necessary or desirable, what is the optimal environment for my particular child? 

It is the responsibility of parents to choose from the available options those settings which can foster the full development of their children.  Some understanding of the current available information about children in daycare programs may help parents as they make these important decisions.