How daycare centers change the stress response system (and what we can do about it)
© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Numerous studies report a link between daycare centers and stress.
The more time young children spend in childcare facilities, the more likely they are to develop abnormal stress hormone profiles.
normal? Typically, the body produces high levels of the stress hormone
cortisol in the early morning. As the day wears on, cortisol levels
kids who spend time in daycare centers, the pattern is different.
Their cortisol levels tend to rise as the day goes on. Instead of
peaking in the early morning, these kids experience higher levels of
cortisol in the afternoon (Geoffroy et al 2006; Vermeer et al 2006; Sims
et al 2005).
The pattern is linked with trouble. Kids with
morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol are rated by their teachers
as more socially fearful (Watamura et al 2003). In addition, sleep
researchers have found that kids with higher afternoon cortisol levels
get less sleep at night (El-Sheikh et al 2008).
It’s also possible that these early daycare experiences have lasting effects.
Teen cortisol levels are linked with time spent in daycare centers
In a recent study, researchers led by Glenn Roisman of the University
of Illinois collected morning cortisol samples from a group of 15-year
old kids (Roisman et al 2009). The teens had been tracked from infancy
by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
As a result, researchers had extensive information about the quality
and quantity of center-based childcare each teen had experienced before
the age of three.
When the cortisol samples were analyzed,
researchers found a link between the teenagers’ morning cortisol levels
and their early childcare experiences. Teens who had spent more time in
daycare centers before the age of three had lower early morning cortisol
Roisman and colleagues note that the effect
was small, and the study didn’t determine if the teens with depressed
morning cortisol levels were any more likely to suffer health problems.
Nevertheless, the results suggest that early childcare experiences may reprogram a child’s stress response system.
is daycare stressful? That’s not yet clear. Roisman’s study controlled
for the effects of maternal sensitivity, as well as socioeconomic
factors, like maternal education level and the family’s income-to-needs
ratio. Nor is it about time spent away from Mom. Cortisol levels weren’t
affected by the amount of time kids spent in non-maternal care—not if
the childcare involved a nanny or family babysitter.
this isn’t just a problem for low-quality childcare. High-quality
childcare centers—defined as facilities which offered intellectual
stimulation and sensitive, responsive teachers—were also linked with
atypical cortisol rhythms.
Perhaps the stress comes from
interacting with other kids. Roisman and colleagues speculate that
children in center-based childcare may have poorer peer experiences.
They might also be subjected to more chaos.
Or maybe the answer
concerns attachment theory. Richard Bowlby argues that young children in
daycare can avoid stress if they develop a lasting, secondary
attachment to one of the center’s caregivers (Bowlby 2007).
The stress-related effects of daycare centers seem to be
dose-dependent. The longer the hours in daycare, the greater the impact.
So simply reducing the numbers of hours in daycare may make a difference.
parents might manage this in a variety of ways—by drawing on family
babysitters, working from home, or hiring childcare helpers. Two-parent
families might also try rescheduling their work shifts so that one
parent is home when the other is away (Feighery 2005).
In addition, parents can help by staying “tuned in" to their children’s needs.
the teen cortisol study, Roisman’s team found that maternal sensitivity
was an independent predictor of abnormal cortisol patterns: Teens with
low morning cortisol levels were more likely to have had moms who were
emotionally unsupportive, hostile, or disrespectful of their children’s
needs for autonomy and independent exploration.
Finally, it makes sense to look for childcare centers with
• low enrollment
• low child-to-staff ratios, and
• warm, sensitive, consistently-available caregivers.
also makes sense to find teachers who enforce fairness and respect your
child’s individual abilities and cultural background.
confirms our intuitions. Daycare kids get more affection, attention,
and stimulation when they are in smaller groups (Clarke-Stewart et al
They also develop greater social competence and more
secure attachments to caregivers when the child-to-staff ratio is low
(Clarke-Stewart et al 1994; Howes et al 1988)
And an Australian
daycare study has found that kids were more likely to experience
healthy, declining cortisol levels in centers where caregivers promoted
fairness and were sensitive to children’s individual and cultural
differences (Sims et al 2005).
References: Daycare center stress
Bowlby R. 2007. Babies and toddlers in non-parental daycare can avoid
stress and anxiety if they develop a lasting secondary attachment bond
with one carer who is consistently accessible to them. Attach Hum Dev.
Clarke-Stewart, Gruber, and Fitzgerald. 1994. Children at home and in day care. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
M, Buckhalt JA, Keller PS, Granger DA. 2008. Children's objective and
subjective sleep disruptions: links with afternoon cortisol levels.
Health Psychology 27(1):26-33.
Feighery A. 2005. Off to work we
go—baby in tow! Welcoming work places and flexible schedules help moms
make ends meet without leaving baby behind. Mothering Magazine Issue
128, Jan-Feb 2005.
Geoffroy M-C, Cote SM, Parent S, and
Seguin JR. 2006. Daycare attendance, stress, and mental health. Canadian
Journal of Psychiatry, 51: 607-615.
Howes C, Rodning C, Galluzzo
DC, and Myers L. 1988. Attachment and child care: Relationships with
mother and caregiver. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 3: 403-416.
GI, Sussman E, Barnett-Walker K, Booth-LeForce C, et al. 2009. Early
family and child-care antecedents of awakening cortisol levels in
adolescence. Child Development 80(3): 907-920.
Sims M, Guilfoyle A
and Parry T. 2005. What cortisol levels tell us about quality in child
care centres. Australian Journal of Early Childhood 30(2): 29-39.
HJ and van IJzendoorn MH. 2006. Children's elevated cortisol levels at
daycare: A review and meta-analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly
Watamura SE, Donzella B, Alwin J, and Gunnar MR.
2003. Morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol concentrations for
infants and toddlers at childcare: age differences and behavioral
correlates. Child Development 74(4):1006-20.
Content of "Daycare Centers and Stress" last modified 7/9