A major new study on child care is sending mixed messages to parents, many of whom are left wondering whether day care is good or bad for their kids.
The National Institutes of Health study, which tracked 1,364 children since birth, determined that preschool kids who spent time in day care were more likely to be reported for problem behavior later on in life by their sixth-grade teachers. But it also found that fifth-graders who went to day care had better vocabulary scores.
Nearly one in four American preschoolers go to day care, and that number is growing. Single parents and many working parents who need two incomes find it a necessity.
Parents rely on day-care centers to provide a safe environment that nurtures kids when they can't be around, but this new study reveals the realities of what can happen in day care, including a potentially negative impact on children's behavior.
The NIH study is the largest study of child care and development conducted in the United States.
Researchers found that the more time a child spends in child care, the more likely it was for the child's sixth-grade teachers to report behavior problems.
"You're interacting with others, and you haven't mastered words and dealing with people, and you hit or you fight or you push," said Dr. Alan Kazdin, a professor of child psychology at Yale University.
But the study also found day-care environments can yield positive results, including making children better talkers.
Researchers found kids in child care had higher fifth grade vocabulary scores.
Margaret Burchinal, a psychologist and one of the study's researchers, said that parents should not be alarmed about the results of the study.
For one, the study found just slightly more behavioral problems among the children who attended day care. And the quality of day care a child receives also plays a role.
Burchinal said parents should monitor their kids' day-care centers by dropping in unannounced and observing how the teacher or caregiver interacts with the children and how the kids interact with each other.
But the bottom line, she said, is that day care isn't as important as the quality of your parenting.
"Do not worry," Burchinal said. "Child care does not matter nearly as much as parenting."