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Best age for kids to start daycare?

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Where I live there is some social pressure to start one's child/toddler at a daycare/preschool at the age of 2. The preschool/daycare we selected is considered one of the best and has been around for 30 years, so I know he will be in good hands. They have a special program, routine set up that includes independent play, group play, outdoor play and a group meal.

My dilemma: what do you think is the optimal age to place one's toddler/child in a daycare/preschool setting? Should it matter that 80-90% of his peers at age of two are already in such a preschool/daycare setting? Will he be behind socially or emotionally if I wait 3, 6 months-one year?

If I do start him, I would only put him in for 1/2 day and he would take his afternoon nap at home and if I don't, I would continue to spend most days with him, except 2-3 afternoons when I teach at a local college or would try :) to work out. I am anxious for your response.


What a tough dilemma! It's hard when your social circle is all parenting in a certain way.

From your letter, it sounds to me like your choice is whether to keep your two year old home with you except for two or three afternoons a week when you teach, OR to put him in morning care, where he would have lunch there but would come home to nap. I assume that you would still be gone 2-3 afternoons each week, so on those days he would be in some kind of care for the full day?

You ask if he will be behind socially or emotionally if you wait. Actually, emotional development comes from his interaction with you, so he will be ahead emotionally if you wait. Socially, he will not be behind if you wait three or six months, or even a year, as long as he has other social experiences during that time, and it is especially good if those social experiences include you (more below on this) because your presence facilitates the development of social skills.

Early school (and two years old is early developmentally) can even be a risk factor, because it asks so much of kids. We don't see this because we don't want to see it, but many two year olds who start school begin compensating for the stress in other ways -- they regress, they hit their little siblings, they have bad dreams, they get more clingy.

But school is also sometimes just fine for kids this age. I actually recommend it if a sibling is expected, because then it gives the child a world of his own, a bigger world, so he is not confined to a world where suddenly an interloper (the baby) dominates and is always at the center. When it is for only three hours a day, it is manageable for most kids, so the stakes are lower than all day. 

Bottom line, it depends on your child. Groups will be stressful for a two year old no matter what, but they also broaden the child's world. Some kids will be more stressed than others by the sensory overload, noise, difficulty of making their needs known to caregivers, competition for toys, necessity of accommodating their own needs to the schedule, etc. This is not a normal state for a two year old. It is a modern idea that does not necessarily take little ones' needs into account, since it is designed for the needs of adults, who need to work. We justify childcare as good for kids socially or academically, but it is not actually good academically (more on that below) and it is over-rated socially (more on that below.)

Many toddlers get overwhelmed and frightened easily in groups, which is why they lash out aggressively, or get more shy. Sometimes the child holds it together in the group setting but as soon as the parent appears to pick him up, he bursts into tears. That means it was hard for him to be in school during that time and while he seemed fine to the teachers (in other words, did not create problems), he actually had a soaring heart rate and high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, if we had measured them. Now that the parent has returned, he is safe to cry and discharge all that stress. So if your child shows this behavior, you may want to avoid having him in a group without you there until he is a bit older.

However, if your child is easily comfortable in groups, then short periods in a group will be stimulating for him and he will be able to cope with your absence. So the bottom line here is your child's personality. If he is the kind of person who always asks to see other kids, then maybe the group will be good for him. If not, then you may want to wait until he is a bit older.

As I said, some kids will be more stressed than others. One factor is the child's own sensory processing and temperament, including how much time he likes alone vs in groups. But another crucial factor is whether the child feels there is an adult available to help him navigate this new environment.

Here's the research.

  • The earlier kids start daycare, the harder it is on them. In the studies that show better daycare results, like the Norway study, the kids did not begin daycare until about one year (since Norway has paid parental leave.)

  • Quality of care and relationship with caregivers makes a big difference. There is encouraging research that when children are cared for at home for the first nine to 18 months AND have a high quality care situation, they do much better in daycare. There is also encouraging evidence that kids who have better relationships with teachers don't have the worrisome cortisol changes that many kids in full time daycare show. (Badanes et al 2012*). 

  • Length of time in daycare each day makes a difference. Children who are younger than 36 months old often find being at daycare all day to be stressful. We know this because their cortisol levels get elevated, compared to kids who are at home during the day. Here's a link to a meta-analysis of daycare studies that came to this conclusion:

  • Some kids are predisposed to find childcare more stressful. There is research showing that genetic differences have an impact on which kids are more stressed in daycare (Tucker-Drob et al 2013*). So in fact many kids do fine, while other children are more stressed.

And here are my "relationship-based" conclusions from everything I have read.

1. Toddlers are not biologically designed to be away from parents for long periods of time. In tribal situations, two year olds do go off with the bigger kids for an hour at a time, and they love it. But when they need refueling, emotionally or physically, they are returned to the parent. (Usually they are still nursing so this is the Mom, but in a tribal situation it could certainly be Dad, big sister, Grandma, or an Auntie.)

2. What is it they need the parent for at that point? Well, the parents are their "North Star" around which they orient, their "attachment object." Other kids are never an appropriate attachment object, which is why teenagers who orient around the peer group have such a hard time.

3. Can Daycare workers be (substitute) attachment objects? Yes, and in fact that is the only way that kids can do without us while they are in school. They temporarily "transfer" their attachment focus from us to the teachers. However, the attachment relationship they provide is not usually a secure attachment because of the competing demands for their attention and because they are not usually "permanent" in the child's life.

4. The prevailing theory about why "school" is hard on little ones is that they don't have one caregiver who is always responsive to their needs. The kids who have that (in the form of a caregiver at home) don't have elevated cortisol. But that is a caregiver at home, one on one with the child. Even very good "schools" who designate a specific caregiver for three or four toddlers (and this is rare, the norm for toddlers in the US is more like six toddlers to one worker) don't have the capacity to have that person be solely available to your child. What's more, he or she will inevitably have sick days or days off, and not be available. But simply sharing the caregiver with so many kids the same age is stressful because they cannot only respond to your child's needs, whether that would be for a snuggle when he's tired, or to help him navigate a playground dispute, or to get him a drink when he's thirsty, or to delay the next scheduled activity because he wants to watch the worm on the sidewalk.

5. Daycare centers do teach kids, through experience, something about how to cope socially. However, kids can learn those same skills in playgroups with the parent there. In fact, having the parent there to give the child language for what's happening ("You want the truck and Ilan wants the truck. Two kids and one truck! How can we work this out?") and help him learn ("Ilan has the truck now, and you will have the truck next. I will help you wait. Do you want to make a road with the plow while we wait for the truck?" ) is actually MORE helpful in learning prosocial skills than just throwing him into a group situation without a designated caregiver. That's sort of a "sink or swim" approach.

6. Research has shown that Empathy is the most important social skill. The development of empathy comes from being treated empathically. There is no way a daycare worker will be able to see things from your child's point of view as well as you can, or offer the empathy you can. So the most important social skill -- empathy -- is taught by the parents, not in "school" group situations. 

7. Do kids get something fantastic academically out of the group setting? No. Having a parent who will stop to watch the worm on the sidewalk, who will let him move through his day at his own pace, is what makes for high IQ. Group situations may expose kids to more things than you would, but that is "sophistication" and is easy to catch up with. It is not actually the ability to think, which will develop more quickly one on one with you. Of course, there are wonderful learning experiences in school, including Montessori manipulatives, books, etc. But parents can provide those things at home, or kid museums, without the downside of the separation.

8. Do toddlers get something socially fantastic out of the group setting? That depends on the child. I have already spoken about the downsides for many children. The upside is that some kids LOVE the group experience and thrive on it for a few hours a day. You will know if your child is one of these kids because he will crave outings where there will be other kids, and will navigate them well.

9. We know that parents of young children who also work outside the home are often terrifically stressed and exhausted. That has to affect the parent-child relationship, totally aside from daycare.

All of that says to me that in an ideal world, parents would work part time when their kids are young. As Stanley Greenspan, noted US researcher and author on child development, suggests, if two parents each work 2/3 time, then they can each be with the child 1/3 time. The last 1/3 of the child's time can be with a carer at home, which we know is much less stressful than a daycare center.

But our work situations and finances rarely allow that perfect world, although I believe we should all be fighting for it. Short of that, I recommend that when parents can, they delay the start of daycare at least until 12 months, and preferably delay full-time care until age four.

Luckily, you have a choice. If it were me, I would have my son stay home another year, especially because he is going to be away from you 2-3 afternoons a week regardless. But I did not have kids who craved the group experience. 

There is one more important issue in your decision. Given that most of his peers will be in school already, the question is, are there any playgroups you can join with him, where you will be with him at the playgroup? Even informal ones at the park? What happens to the other ten percent of kids, who are not in school? Do their parents take them to playgroups in the park or "Mommy/Daddy and Me" classes for music or swimming or anything? Of course, going to the store or gardening or to the museum or market with you -- these experiences are not social, but are IQ-expanding and fantastic for him to do with you. And a weekly trip to the library is wonderful. And if he has friends come over in the afternoon after they are out of school a few days a week, that is plenty of social play. You could even think of this as "home schooling" for this year.

Good luck!,
Dr. Laura

*Badanes LS, Dmitrieva J, and Watamura SE. 2012. Understanding Cortisol Reactivity across the Day at Child Care: The Potential Buffering Role of Secure Attachments to Caregivers. Early Child Res Q. 27(1):156-165. 

*Tucker-Drob EM and Harden KP. 2013. Gene-by-preschool interaction on the development of early externalizing problems. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 54(1):77-85. 



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