Unstable child care can affect children by age 4 (study)

Again there is research showing how important the first years of life can be. A new study from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) reveals that disruptions in child care negatively affect children’s social development as early as age 4. However, there is also hope. The study also shows that the effects of child care instability are not unduly large–and some types of instability appear to have no negative impact on children.

In short:


  • Child care instability was measured as the number of child care provider changes.
  • The number of overall changes was divided into changes across and within settings.
  • Several covariates were included to account for potential family selection bias.
  • Overall and across-setting changes significantly predicted to social adjustment.


From the press release:

“Our findings showed that when young children moved between child care settings, these transitions negatively affected their social adjustment,” said FPG investigator Mary Bratsch-Hines. “But when children had a history of changing caregivers within the same setting, we found no significant effects.”

Bratsch-Hines explained many experts believe forming stable and secure early relationships with parents and caregivers serves as a working model for children as they form social connections later.

“It follows that higher levels of instability and disruption in establishing strong relationships with caregivers during children’s earliest years could lead to difficulties forming trusting relationships down the road,” said Bratsch-Hines. “However, we have to recognize that changing child care settings and providers may be inevitable for a majority of families.”

Bratsch-Hines said that ups and downs in income, availability of transportation, secure employment, and other factors can result in children moving into and out of different child care settings. But understanding the effects of such transitions on children has remained elusive.

As a result, Bratsch-Hines and her team decided to take a comprehensive look at the impact of child care instability by capitalizing on FPG’s long-running Family Life Project. She and her colleagues examined the experiences of nearly 1,300 young children living in high-poverty rural areas, focusing on changes in child care both within and across settings–an approach few prior studies had attempted.

“In our study, we also included infants and toddlers even if they were enrolled intermittently in child care that their parents did not provide,” said Bratsch-Hines. “Previous studies have included only those children who continuously received child care from people other than their parents.”

By rigorously accounting for numerous child, family, and child care characteristics, the FPG team determined that a history of changes in child care across settings negatively impacted children’s lives.

“Not unexpectedly, children who experienced more changes in child care settings received lower ratings from their pre-kindergarten teachers on social adjustment,” said Bratsch-Hines. “This may be because changing child care locations meant children had to adjust to new physical environments in terms of the buildings, playgrounds, and toys–as well as new routines–in addition to disruptions in relationships with peers, primary caregivers, and other adults.”

According to Bratsch-Hines, although there was a clear negative impact on social adjustment for children who experienced child care instability across settings, the effect was small.

Furthermore, her team found no evidence that infants and toddlers who only experienced changes in providers within settings later had difficulty with social adjustment in pre-kindergarten. “This could be good news for parents who worry about high teacher turnover and other changes in staff at their chosen child care setting,” she said.

Nonetheless, Bratsch-Hines said the practical implications of her team’s findings suggest that programs can make additional efforts to integrate children–regardless of their child care history–into their care.

“In addition, child care subsidies could be changed to help parents access stable child care,” she explained. “With subsidies often tied to parental employment, unstable employment can lead to unstable child care.”

Bratsch-Hines also called for more research in order to better understand the roles of child care instability and other factors on child development.

“It may be that child care instability is another indicator of chaos in families’ lives,” she said. “We want to be able to best prepare children for the challenges of schooling, and we have to understand all the factors that stand in their way.”

Abstract of the research:

Most children in the United States experience nonparental child care during early childhood, and many children experience changes in their care during this period. Changes in care, or child care instability, have been argued to disrupt children’s emerging relationships with others and may impede children’s social-emotional development, particularly when changes occur during infancy and toddlerhood. Data for this study were drawn from the Family Life Project, a longitudinal study representative of families living in rural low-wealth areas. With a sample of 1292 children who were followed from six months to prekindergarten, this study examined the associations between cumulative child provider instability (measured as overall changes or changes across or within settings) from 6 to 36 months and children’s social adjustment at prekindergarten. A number of factors were included to control for family selection into child care. Results suggested that more overall child care provider instability was negatively associated with teacher ratings of social adjustment at prekindergarten. This association was driven by provider instability across but notwithin settings, though effect sizes were small. These findings point to an increased need to understand how early child care instability may be related to children’s subsequent development.

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