#SoCalSoCurious: Is a single caregiver better for early childhood development than day care?

Right now, Tara Tyson has a sitter watching her 15-month-old son during the day. As he grows, she's wondering if group care would be better.
Right now, Tara Tyson has a sitter watching her 15-month-old son during the day. As he grows, she's wondering if group care would be better.
Priska Neely/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

As Tara Tyson watches her toddler start to walk, wave bye-bye and say a few words – mostly naming his favorite toy, "ball" – she's started to wonder how he'll learn other social skills like sharing, expressing himself and respecting boundaries.

"I was wondering if adult interaction was more advantageous for toddlers than peer interaction," Tyson explained. "Is a nanny better for their development and stimulation was better than being in day care?"

She submitted that question to KPCC as part of our SoCal So Curious initiative, where listeners can ask journalists about anything that makes them curious.

Tyson used her four available months of maternity leave to stay home with her son. Now, she works from home once a week and a sitter comes to her apartment in West Los Angeles the rest of the week, while she and her husband are at work.

"A friend mentioned to me that kids have different development and stimulation with adults versus being around their peers more," said Tyson. "So that’s something we’ve been thinking about."

Now she's wondering when she should consider putting him into a center with other kids.

"I did kind of wonder – and still sometimes think – is that something he's missing out on?"

She couldn’t find a clear-cut answer online.

"Obviously if you put in 'the right way to socialize a child,' " she said, "you'll get way more than you were imagining."

On Fridays, Tara Tyson works from home and stays with her son. The other four days, a caregiver comes to the house.
On Fridays, Tara Tyson works from home and stays with her son. The other four days, a caregiver comes to the house.
Priska Neely/KPCC

Part of the reason it's hard to Google is that even child development specialists say the answer is complex. KPCC reached out to a number of experts who said there are a number of elements to consider. 

There are so many different variables — cost, location, a child's personality — so it’s a hard question to answer with research. And since child care is so expensive, many families don’t have a lot of options. Several experts noted that the lack of good parental leave policies in the United States leave many parents feeling even more constrained.

But there is some general wisdom. Here are perspectives of five child development experts on things to keep in mind:

‘It’s not either-or, it’s both-and’

Barbara Stroud, clinical child and developmental psychologist:

Kids are going to benefit from adult engagement that meets them at their level. It needs to be developmentally appropriate – so it needs to be toddler level.  

Toddlers should experience other toddlers. They’re gonna have a lower threshold, less patience for toddlers because toddlers are not as emotionally organized as adults. So toddlers can easily become frustrated by other toddlers. So the great thing about group care is that it extends that window of tolerance for emotional stress from other kids in a supervised setting.

If kids are with nannies, playgroups are great and if kids are in child care, one-on-one time with parents is great. So it’s really a combination.

A lot of it has to do with the child’s age and personality

Ron Lally, co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at West Ed:

The first year or year and a half is a situation where the child can get familiar with the regular caregivers and in that case it might be good, because the child is attaching to and learning how to get along with a small number of people. As they get to 20 months, 24 months, one thing they’re trying to do is form an independent self. They try to learn about how you operate in this world and interactions with peers is helpful.

But it isn’t in isolation with peers, it’s with a caregiver who is moderating, helping the children understand the rules of the road – sharing, things like that. And the issue is quality. There are positive outcomes with higher quality and less outcomes with lower quality.

I would just look around when the child got to 20 months or so and see where the child is. Children have temperamental differences – some are more cautious and fearful and less willing to engage, and others are raring to go.

There's a lot to learn in day care

Debra Ward, director of the Child Development Center at Cerritos College:

One-on-ones can be wonderful when they’re infants and toddlers, especially if that infant caregiver is responsive to that infant or toddler’s every needs. We start children [at the Child Development Center] at two and we see that when children are two, they’re ready for the social interaction with many people.  We find that they grow so much more with different caregivers.

They’re also going to be learning – not only sharing – but being responsible to take care of their own needs. If take out a toy and play with something, they’re required to put it away. If they’re sitting together eating, they’re going to learn some of those pro-social skills on how you eat with groups. 

Caregivers should be like sportscasters

Renatta Cooper, education coordinator, L.A. County Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education

When you have a yard full of toddlers you have to think of that movie "When Worlds Collide," because each one of them is spinning on their own axis, doing their own thing. So that’s your job as the adult to be watching it like a good sportscaster would and just be describing all the action: Oh Skylar picked up the ball, now Andrew picked up the ball.

One of the things about a good program for child care – you make the most of all the interactions you have with a child. A child in a program doesn’t need intense one-on-one all day because they will get interactions from age mates. But when you are feeding them, when you are changing them, when you are dressing them, you make the most of those interactions, too.

There are a lot of ways to get to the child you want. So people shouldn’t be too hung up on a single path.

Family matters most 

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development conducted a study in the 1990s, following more than 1,300 children in different child care settings from infancy to age 15. Children who attended child care centers had somewhat better cognitive and language development, but some showed some more behavior problems in preschool and kindergarten. 

James Griffin, deputy chief of child development and behavior branch, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development:

The effects that families and parents had on their children far outweighed anything related to child care. For better or worse, that really is the case and hopefully that really is reassuring because it’s a deeply personal decision and it’s often a hard decision about making child care arrangements. So it’s just really being able to provide some understanding that parents really are the biggest influence on their children. Sometimes it's really a matter of the individual child and the match, both in the family situation, as well as in the child care situation.

Have an early childhood question you want KPCC to explore? Enter it below or visit our SoCal. So Curious. page.