Daycare can be a stressful place. Lots of noises, constant interactions with other impulsive, emotional, toy-grabbing toddlers, and not enough soothing adult attention. Sure enough, studies have shown that kids in childcare centers release stress hormones differently. Instead of peaking in the morning and declining throughout the day (the normal pattern), cortisol levels have been found to increase into the afternoon (signaling higher anxiety) when kids are in daycare. One study released last year found that pattern still existed when those kids reached age 15.
I wasn't surprised when I read this. My son started part-time daycare at 16 months and, especially in the beginning, I think it took a lot out of him. When I picked him up after school, he kind of collapsed, like he'd been expending a lot of energy keeping it all together without me. When he's home, I'm right there comfort him, but with a ratio of three kids to one adult when he's in daycare, it's inevitable that he's going to be left to fend for himself sometimes.
When you put all the studies side by side, the story isn't all gloomy. Findings like the ones on high cortisol levels make headlines, but they are easily taken out of context. Another recent study shows that when kids with center-based childcare experience reached sixth grade, they are more likely to have behavioral problems. It sounds bad, but on second glace, it's only one small piece of the puzzle.
The news isn't all bad - that same study says that kids in higher-quality care have better vocabularies and made slight gains in math in the early years.
The cortisol findings are also very slight. They don't say that kids are always nervous wrecks when they're away from home. One study showed that the cortisol change is linked to classrooms of 20 kids or more and only holds true when the children have difficult relationships with their teachers.
Daycare is not "good" or "bad" for kids. Its influence depends on the child you have in front of you. Recently it was found that kids with difficult temperaments are the ones who suffer in low-quality daycare, but they also flourish in high-quality care.
So, I'm not planning to ditch work any time soon, because to me what matters is how daycare is working for my family. All of this research has made me re-focus my attention to where it matters most. Even the studies that turn up with slight downsides to daycare all say that a child's relationship with his parents is what really makes the difference.
No matter how our kids spend their days, the time we do have together is the most powerful part of a child's week.