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Child Care No Risk to Infant-Mother Ties, Study Says

April 21, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The largest, longest and most comprehensive study yet of the effects of child care on infants' development has shown no significant correlation between nonmaternal care and the emotional attachment infants feel for their mothers.

However, the study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development cautioned Saturday that low-quality child care, more than 10 hours a week in care and multiple-care arrangements do adversely affect infants' attachment when combined with maternal insensitivity.

The findings of the NICHD survey of early child care were termed "tentatively promising" by Pennsylvania State University child development specialist Jay Belsky, who almost a decade ago unleashed a controversy with his theory that children who spend more than 20 hours a week in day care have a higher risk of insecure attachment in infancy and elevated rates of aggression as youngsters.

Joined by NICHD researchers from the 10 sites where the study of 1,300 children was conducted, Belsky on Saturday presented the first portion of what is expected to be a long-term study to those attending an international conference on infant studies.

The study was launched by the NICHD, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in 1991--in part as a response to Belsky's gloomy research several years before. Children from diverse ethnic, economic and geographic backgrounds were enrolled at birth and will be followed through age 7. The findings announced Saturday apply to children at age 15 months.

Child-care arrangements evaluated in relationship to attachment security included father care, grandparent care, care by a nonrelative in the child's home, family day care and center-based care. The study's results were based on several research tools, including direct and videotaped observation of the children and questioning of parents and care providers.

Dr. Eleanor Maccoby of Stanford University, a renowned scholar on early childhood development, said the survey will continue to provide valuable information as the country adjusts to the steadily increasing presence of mothers in the work force. For now, demonstrating that nonmaternal care is not in and of itself a risk factor for young children as they form key attachments to their mothers is "quite a remarkable occasion," she said.

"There are enormous policy implications here," Maccoby said. "To say nothing of how mothers feel about themselves, and wonder, if they go to work, how it affects their children when they send them off to day care."

More than half of mothers whose children are less than a year old are in the work force, and for college-educated women, the figure climbs to 68%, government statistics show. While just two decades ago, most mothers deferred employment until a child reached school age, today most women return to work before the child is 5 months old.

NICHD researchers wondered how such a dramatic change in what the study called "the ecology of children's lives" would affect their development. "The prospect that routine, nonmaternal care in the first year of life might adversely affect children" caused serious concern, said Dr. Alison Clarke-Stewart of UC Irvine, one of the NICHD study sites.

Clarke-Stewart said maternal attachment was chosen as a measurement because "it offers a window into the emotional well-being" of a child and often serves as a long-term predictor of other emotional and behavioral issues.

For example, some psychologists have linked insecure attachment to the mother to compromised developmental and social adjustment at older ages, including difficult interactions with others.

In 1987, Belsky concluded that more than 20 hours a week of nonmaternal care in the first year of life was associated with increased risks of insecure attachment in infancy and elevated rates of aggression and noncompliance later. Rather than refuting that finding, Belsky said Saturday that the new study supports his contention that multiple risk factors associated with nonmaternal care may adversely affect a child's development.

"The thing about risk factors is that they don't work all by themselves," said Belsky, whose university also served as a study site. In cases where insecure attachment was the result, Belsky said, the quality of care provided by mothers at home tended to be limited. In addition, temperament and gender appeared to be factors, with boys showing greater insecure attachment than girls.

Belsky said the toll of insecure attachment is likely to grow. Future data from the NICHD study will provide more exact answers, he said, "but try imagining a third-grade class" where a significant portion of the students failed to develop secure attachments to their mothers.

"Is the teacher spending more time managing and less time teaching?" Belsky hypothesized.

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