Relationships For Early Childhood Development
When considering different types of childcare, it is important to weigh the impact of care environments on the child’s developmental outcomes and well-being. Numerous studies have been done on child care environments and their impact on child development. The most comprehensive study was done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from 1991 to 2004. This study looked at different types and quality of childcare and compared development in the categories of social/emotional, cognitive/linguistic and physical outcomes for birth through three years old (Phase I), through 1st Grade (Phase II), and up to 13 years old (Phase III).
While there is significant research on the topic of childcare, the findings are largely inconclusive when comparing one generally available type of childcare to another (i.e. daycare to in-home care). As the NICHD study showed, differences in development and well-being, instead, often emerge from complex interactions among the child, their home, and care environments. This study concluded that “features of the family and of children’s experiences in their families proved, in general, to be stronger and more consistent predictors of child development than did any aspect of child care.” Thus, it is not the type of childcare that is important, but the quality of childcare.
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second.
Evidence shows that individual life successes, health, and emotional wellbeing have their roots in early childhood. These early years are critical to help children thrive throughout school and their adult lives.
Both nature and nurture (genes and environment) influence children’s development. The quality of a child’s earliest environments and the availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of development are critical for appropriate brain development.
Caring and supportive environments that promote optimal early childhood development greatly increase children’s chances of a successful transition to school. This, in turn, promotes children’s chances of achieving better learning outcomes while at school and better education, employment and health after they have finished school.
Critical components of early childcare environments
Given the importance of early childcare environments, there are several key factors that create optimal conditions for infants, babies, and toddlers to flourish. One of the strongest and most consistent predictors of children’s development is positive caregiving—that is, sensitive, encouraging, and frequent interactions between the caregiver and the child. These factors include a positive attitude, physical contact, responsiveness, vocal interaction, and encouragement. Below is more detail on some of the critical components of early childcare environments:
The basics: food and safety. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs posits that human development is optimized when the most basic needs are met. The foundation of human needs are physiological (food, water, sleep), safety, and love/belonging. Once these needs are met, then, and only then, can an individual become all that he or she can be. A safe environment includes both environmental safety from things such as chemicals and heavy objects, to interpersonal safety such as harmful adults or other children.
Physical contact. Children need physical nourishment. Closeness to a caregiver is paramount. Comforting hugs, reassuring pats, holding hands and encouraging touch have significant meaning in early childhood brain development. For infants, adequate attention should be given to “tummy time” while the child is awake. An infants brain needs that pressure on their abdomen to strengthen and align muscles and balance bodily functions. Infants with reduced attention to tummy time can have developmental, cognitive, and organizational skills delays, eye-tracking problems, and behavioral issues, among other things.
Sensitive, responsive, attentive. By definition, positive caregiving necessitates caregivers showing a positive attitude. Caregivers should be generally in good spirits and encouraging. They should smile often around children and respond to vocalizations by either repeating words and sounds or commenting on what the child says. The child should feel encouraged and supported by the caregiver and they should establish a more meaningful relationship.
Wellness, health and nutrition. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, food and nutrition play a critical role in the intellectual development and growth of a child during their first two years. The study details the importance of nutrition in achieving much higher levels of development. This includes access to the right types of food to feed a growing mind. According to a study at the University of Bristol, providing poor quality, over-processed food to babies and toddlers can lead to slower mental development and higher risk of illnesses such as heart disease and obesity later in life.
In addition to strong nutrition, clean environments are important to younger babies to prevent frequent occurrence of ear infections and respiratory illnesses. According to NICHD, babies and young children who are cared for in a one-on-one setting experience less upper respiratory infections, stomach upsets, and ear infections. This seems to be directly related to the group-size. Rates of illness and infection were higher in children in large group care than were children who were reared at home or in small group settings. There have been numerous studies on the use of antibiotics in young children and long-term effects on gut health and brain development. Reducing significant exposure to germs the first year of life can reduce the incidence of illness among infants and babies.
Consistency. For children, it is important to have consistency among routine, environment, and relationships. Neurons to Neighborhoods, a comprehensive review of early childhood development research, found that virtually all infants form deep bonds with their care providers. These relationships have a lasting impact on their overall development in life. Consistency in the environment and safety they provide is critical to early brain development.
In the home, the environment can be tailored exactly to your child’s needs, including consistent people, places, and situational exposures. This is less the case in day care settings, where the environment changes with the needs of the class and facility as a whole. However, many daycare facilities try to work with parents to keep care providers, routines, and discipline techniques consistent.
Cognitively stimulating. Cognitive stimulation for children is a critical component for brain development and advancing developmental milestones. A longitudinal study analyzed the care environments of 4 years olds on a range of cognitively stimulating factors, including number of books, access to music, letters and numbers, etc… This study found a strong correlation between cognitively stimulating environments at the age of 4 and advanced language comprehension and cognition into their late teens.
Caregivers have a range of tools they can use at different ages to encourage cognitive stimulation. There are numerous lists online for learning activities for children depending on age. Some activities include:
Encouraging the child to talk/communicate by asking easy questions
Having the child repeat learning phrases or items, such counting to 10, naming shapes or objects tell stories or sing songs
Pretend play or playing games, such as duck-duck-goose
Read books and stories; let the child touch the book; point to pictures and words
Eliminating negative interactions. Another obvious, but significant component of positive caregiving is eliminating or limiting negative interactions. Children often learn new behaviors through observational and imitative learning, i.e. watching and listening to others. Poorly behaved adults or children may act as role models just as much as well-behaved adults and children. Even though children may observe bad behavior, they may not always imitate it. Children tend to model behaviors depending on the reinforcements those behaviors receive.
A caregiver should always try to be positive, not negative, in the interactions with the child, even in times of trouble. The caregiver should also interact often with the child and not ignore him or her. Background and reference checks are critical here.
A positive environment is the most essential element for early childcare. This can be found in any kind of setting. A neglectful nanny is worse than a high quality daycare, and, likewise, a positive, high quality nanny is better than a large, inattentive day care. There is no way to generalize one type of childcare as better than another as all situations are as different as the children we are solving for. Keep in mind that advantages of having a nanny can vary on the person. This is one reason the research on this topic has been so inconclusive.
However, the most important aspects to investigate when making a decision among types of childcare is the environment, including relationships, activities, exposure, and positive interactions. A higher standard of care means your child is safe, happy, eating healthier meals, engaging in stimulating activity, and learning proper social skills/work habits.
While one-on-one care does not ensure positive interactions in all cases, it provides much greater control over the child’s environment and can provide customized support to children in different areas of need at different times in their development. It also provides the consistency of relationship and routine that small children need. Consider some of the benefits of hiring a nanny addressed above.
With one on one care, parents should still promote open communication with the care provider about their preferences, their child’s needs, and developmental milestones.