• National and international surveys describe the conditions and costs of child care.

  • To date nations, including Canada, have focused more on the conditions of child care, especially safety, than on how the conditions are linked to children's cognitive, language, and behavioural development.

  • Empirical evidence can elucidate the impact of the conditions of child care on children's development.

  • Historically, child care research was dominated by studies from the United States that reflected that nation's social and political values on the heels of women's increased participation in the workplace and the impact of anti-segregation laws in the schools. They asked:
    Does early mother-child separation negatively affect socio-emotional development?
         Can child care intervention treatments buffer the negative effects of race, teenage
         parenthood, and poverty?

  • Our preliminary narrative review of early child care studies suggests that:
         Good research
    disentangles the influence of family characteristics from the conditions
         of non-parental child care.
         Overall quality must be measured to understand how child care conditions impact
         children's development.

There is growing realisation, advanced by the Education Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), that if child care “factors can be reliably linked with learning outcomes through research and surveys, the process will yield valuable information for evaluation and corrective purposes” (Bennet, 2002). Through Thematic Reviews of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy and the Country Notes initiative, OECD demonstrated that even for countries in which accessibility and quality of child care is considered high (such as for Sweden and Norway), research on the impact of child care has not sufficiently informed child care decision makers. CCKM's Research Guide to Child Care Decision Making was created to address this concern.

Descriptive research, of the type gathered by the OECD, asks: What is the state of child care in a given jurisdiction? For example, we know about 54% of Canadian children experience some form of non-parental child care (Statistics Canada, 2006). The data of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children & Youth (NLSCY) show that from 1994/95 to 2002/03 the proportion of children who receive non-parental child care increased significantly in all provinces except Alberta.

Percent of Canadian Children in Child Care

Province of residence


% of Children in Child Care



Newfoundland and Labrador



Prince Edward Island



Nova Scotia



New Brunswick


















British Columbia



Note: Estimates in bold represent statistically significant differences. Source: Statistics Canada, 2006

Of the many types of non-parental child care one could compare, the comparison of care in a centre setting versus care in a home setting is of great interest to child development researchers, parents, practitioners, and policy analysts alike. This interest may stem from the question of whether young children thrive better in home-like or school-like environments with all of their potential differences in human, material, and management resources. Also, the ten provinces and three territories set various standards for child care centres, and set the maximum number of children allowed in private homes, but the standards vary amongst provinces and territories (OECD, 2003/04).

During 2002/2003 the majority of children (67.4%) received non-parental care in home settings, their own, a relative's home, or a non-relative's home. The percentage of children who receive non-parental care in child care centres was approximately 27.9%, and increase of about 8% from 1994/95 to 2002/03. The percentage of children who were cared for in home settings by relatives increased, while care in homes by non-relatives decreased (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Seventy-seven percent of child care settings in Canada are privately operated, usually by non-profit entities. Ten to fifteen percent of non-profit settings are operated by government organisations or school boards (OECD, 2003/04).

The OECD Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care in Canada (2003) define three pan-Canadian objectives for child care:

1. to increase children’s intellectual and behavioural development
2. to support parental employment
3. to alleviate the risk of child developmental problems

The objectives are meant to prepare preschool children to enter school ready to learn. In general, academic, government, and non-governmental descriptive reports point to an array of factors that may fulfil the Canadian objectives for child care. They include overall quality of care, accessibility to non-parental child care, and the positive impact of child care on child, parent, and family development and behaviour, both short-term and long-term.

The quality of the physical, social, and educational environments children experience in child care and the effects of these factors on child development are of great concern. The nation-wide You Bet I Care! study examined the quality of Canadian child care conditions and discovered that although the majority of non-parental centres provided a physically safe environment with supportive staff, only 44% of child care centres, and only 20% of infant/toddler care centres provided developmentally appropriate activities and materials (Goelman et. al., 2000). The OECD’s response (Country Note) to Canada’s Thematic Review (2003/04) confirmed that in many Canadian non-parental child care centres, “ideas about safety dominated the activities and environment” (p. 65). The strong emphasis on safety over developmentally appropriate activities and materials may reduce children’s opportunities to “unload their energy, and stretch the limits of their imagination and creativity” (OECD, 2003/04, p.65). The relationships between factors of child care and children’s development must be identified so that the best conditions of care exist for all children in all types of child care, parental and non-parental. CCKM’s Research Guide for Child Care Decision Making presents 66 studies of the relationship of child care conditions to children's development.

The relationship between the conditions of child care and children’s development is reflected not only in data but also in the historic and socio-political context in which the data are collected. Historically, child care research evidence for the most part has been dominated by results of studies conducted in the United States. Issues of child care in the US in the 1970s were influenced by the writings of Bowlby, Bronfenbrenner, and Klaus. Without good supporting data, they claimed that children’s first and primary relationship in the early years of life must be with their mothers alone. In those days fathers and other adults were not thought of as providing the emotional and learning supports needed by young children.  Threats to opportunities for early mother-infant bonding were thought to cause irreparable and life-long psychological harm. Non-maternal child care was viewed as one of those threats. The research question most prominently posed was: Does early mother-child separation negatively affect socio-emotional development?

But more than anything, the issue was framed by political and economic considerations of whether women with young children should seek and hold paid employment outside the home, and whether their children would be harmed by non-parental child care (Waldfogel, 2002). Issues were contentious and data rested on the questionable validity of outcome measures of maternal “attachment” (Ainsworth, 1973), and the work and writings of Jay Belsky (see Belsky, 2001 for summary). Early maternal-child separation, resulting from maternal employment and non-parental child care, was said by Belsky to cause emotional insecurities resulting in the development of interpersonal distrust, aggression, and other life-long socio-emotional dysfunctions. Others (e.g., Brooks-Gunn, Han, & Waldfogel, 2002) linked early child care to delayed school readiness. These effects, however, were not consistently supported by evidence (e.g., Clarke-Stewart, 1988). In some cases, negative effects of early maternal employment and child care were reported only for European American children, whereas the effects of separating infants from their African American mothers were viewed as positive (Waldfogel et.al., 2002).

In 1990, Belsky allowed that early non-maternal child care outcomes of insecure infant-mother attachment may be attributable, not to the effects of non-maternal child care, but to characteristics of the family. He argued, however, that non-maternal child care contributed more than family factors to the development of insecure infant-mother relationships.

Belsky’s conclusions lost credibility in a climate in which mothers of preschool children increasingly sought employment outside the home. They also lost credibility when challenged and refuted by researchers in the United States and abroad. Nevertheless, Belsky's work shed light on the importance measuring and removing the influence of what are called "confounding variables" that cloud the relationship of child care conditions to children's development.

Confounding variables can include the social and economic conditions of family life, parental education,  ethnicity and parenting style, children’s gender and psychobiological predispositions (e.g., temperament), maternal depression, and other factors that may influence children's development over and above the conditions of non-parental child care (Lamb, 1996; Owens, 2004; Peisner-Feinberg, et. al., 2001). For this reason, the Research Guide included only studies that were large and significant enough to have measured and disentangled family and child characteristics from the relationship between the conditions of child care and children's development.

A second most prominently posed question took the opposite stance by examining the benefits of child care as an intervention treatment for children at risk for poor or delayed development. Can child care buffer the negative effects on education and employment outcomes of race, teenage parenthood, poverty, and their collaborative impact? This research reflected concerns in the US that African American children were not ready to compete with European American children in racially integrated schools. Intervention programs such as Head Start responded to this concern by creating and testing preschool intervention programs.

In spite of the variance amongst child care intervention programs and research methods, the preponderance of answers to this question were affirmative, at least in the short-term (Karoly et. al., 1998). Child care interventions were shown to increase IQ, social competence, school readiness, academic achievement, positive teacher and parent social and academic ratings, high school completion, and decrease special education referrals, welfare subsidies in adulthood, and criminality. The positive effects on children at-risk for poor educational and employment outcomes were greater when child care interventions were early and comprehensive. As a bonus, there seemed to be some positive impacts of child care interventions on parental behaviours and parent well-being (Ramey & Ramey, 1998). Data from intervention initiatives in France, Ireland, and the UK also supported the notion that child care intervention programs increased level of school readiness, school achievements, and rate of high school completion (see Waldfogel, 2002, for summary).

Research findings suggest positive effects of child care on children who are at risk for poor development only when child care is of high quality (e.g., Burchinal & Cryer, 2003; Loeb et. al., 2004; Peisner-Feinberg & Burchinal, 1997; Votruba-Drzal, 2004). In fact and in contrast to popular belief, even high socio-economic status does not seem to buffer against negative effects of poor quality child care (e.g., Peisner-Feinberg & Burchinal, 1997). Past research suggested positive effects of high quality child care even on the development of children who were at low-risk for poor educational and social outcomes (e.g., Bryant, Burchinal, Lau, & Sparling, 1994; Larsen & Robinson, 1989). Given these research findings, it is reasonable to assume that children who live in poverty and attend poor quality child care are disadvantaged by the worst of both worlds.

In summary, child care research is coloured by political, social, national, and theoretical contexts. These are the same factors that drive all research initiatives in one way or another. However, the early studies taught researchers two important lessons. First, when measuring the impact of non-parental child care on children's development, it is important to remove confounding factors relating to family characteristics that also are known to affect children's development. Second, the overall quality of child care may significantly govern the impact on children's development over and above individual features of child care. CCKM's Research Guide to Child Care Decision Making took these two lessons into consideration when developing the methods for selecting and analysing the 66 child care reports.

    2006 © Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation