What's better for children's development, home or centre care?

Does it matter to children’s development where child care takes place, how early non-parental care starts, and how many different arrangements of child care that children experience? These questions were asked in the 66 reports by examining the relationship of children’s development to the following child care factors: type of care, age of entry, time spent in care, stability of care.

Type of Care

There are many ways that parents provide for the care of their children during work-times. The setting for child care is a home or a centre. The home may be the child’s own home, a relative’s (grandparent, aunt, etc.) home, or the home of an unrelated person. The individual caring for the child in the child’s own home may be the parent, a relative, or an unrelated person such as a babysitter. Home care can include the simultaneous care of many children from many families. Home care is sometimes referred to as family day care, even though the family may not be the child’s own family.

Like home care, centre care may be for profit or not-for-profit. Centre care can be fully publicly funded, subsidized in part, or paid for fully by the child’s family. Some Canadian provinces subsidize child care that takes place in homes. Centres and homes vary in the degree to which their conditions and practices are regulated by jurisdictions.

Only 9 of the 66 reports tackled this complex question of whether the type of care (home setting versus centre setting) was related to children’s cognitive, language, and behavioural development. Not only was the number of reports small, comparisons differed. Six reports studied the impact on children’s development of child care in a parental or a non-parental home setting with the child care in a centre, two reports compared care in a non-parental home setting with care in a centre setting, and one report compared care of 1 or 2 individually with the care of children in groups of 3 or more.

Comparisons of Child Care Settings

  Parental, Home, Centre Home, Centre Other
# of Reports 6 2 1

Results of the 9 reports showed differences in relationships to children’s cognitive, language, or behavioural development. In no report was parental care ever associated with better development over non-parental home or centre care. Differences in the impact on children’s development of non-parental home care (designated as home in this and many other documents) versus centre care were also assessed. Research comparisons of home and centre are based on the notion that being in a home setting rather than a school-like setting may be more favourable for young children. Data were analysed by lumping together all forms of non-parental home care, whether it was by grandparents, friends, or other unrelated adults. It is of great importance to compare the impact on children’s development of home (anyone’s home) versus centre care because parents more often choose home care over centre care for their children.

Across the 9 research reports there were 36 individual evaluations of how the type of child care setting influenced the results of tests of children’s development. Positive (+) results indicate benefits to children’s test scores of one type of care over another. Negative (-) results indicate detriments to children’s test scores of one type of care over another. Null (0) results mean that type of care did not matter to test scores. However, the graph does not show what type mattered more.

We clarify these results as follows: Of the 13 measures of cognitive development, 7 showed positive relationships to type of care and 6 of the 7 favoured centre care. 

Of the 8 measures of language development, 5.2 showed positive relationships to type of care and 4.8 of the 5.2 favoured centre care. Fractional results occur because the tests had subscales and results varied (+, 0, -) within the set of subscales. Most assessments (12 of 15) of social behaviour showed no advantage one way or the other with type of child care.  

We considered the overall conclusions in each report of the benefits of care in home settings versus centre settings. Centre Care won out over home care in five of the seven reports.

Associated with Better Development # of Reports
Centre 3
Home 1
Mixed Results 1
2 reports = no differences between home and centre

Highlights of a report on type of child care:

Across the 9 reports, the impacts of 35 different child and family characteristics and quality of child care that could have masqueraded as effects of child care setting, were eliminated. The elimination of such confounding variables adds a great deal of credibility to the conclusions: the individual tests of children’s cognitive and language development showed better results for children in centre care.

Other considerations: Age of Entry, Time Spent, Stability of Care

Type of Care is the “to be or not to be” choice of parents. Once made, other factors must be weighed. How early is too early (age of entry)? Does amount of time in care (hours, months, years) matter? Does it matter to children’s development if they often change settings or caregivers (stability of care)? More research has been dedicated to questions of age of entry and time spent in care than to the primary question of home versus centre care. In reports of the effects of time of entry, time spent in care, and stability of care, the researchers either studied children in centres only or they combined the results across all non-parental settings of homes or centres.

Factor # of Articles
Type of Care 9
Age of Entry 17
Time in Care 23
Stability of Care 3


Age of Entry

Across the 17 research reports, there were 73 individual tests of the relationship of age at which children entered non-parental care settings and their development. Four of the reports were from Sweden, one each was from Canada and Bermuda, and the remainder were from the US. In the graph, the positive (+) results can be interpreted as meaning that the earlier the age of entry into non-parental child care the better the children’s development. Negative results mean that the later the child’s entry into non-parental care the better the children’s development. Entry into centre care was as early as three months of age in one US report.



# of Reports

Associated with Better Development Cognition Language Behaviour
Earlier Entry 7 4 3
Later Entry 1 0 2
Mixed Results 0 1 5
No Relationship at all 3 0 3
Total # of Reports = 17

Whether measured by number of evaluations (the bar graph above) or number of reports (the table above) there is more evidence that early entry into child care has positive rather than negative relationships to children’s development. The few instances of negative relationships were derived from data collected in the US.

Time Spent in Care

In addition to whether or not children experienced non-parental care in child care centres at all, and the age at which children first experienced centre care, researchers have considered the possibility that the amount of time in centre care has an impact on children’s development. Time in care was considered only in terms of how many months of life in centre care the child experiences before school entry. (Full-day versus half-day in non-parental care is a separate but equally important way of considering degree of child care experience; see Robin, Frede, and Barnett, 2006.) Overall there were 105 tests of the amount of time spent in non-parental child care and children’s development.

Amount of time spent in centre care seems to have little influence on children’s cognitive and behavioural development. However, increased time spent in centre care has noticeably positive influences on language development and never a negative influence.

Of the 10 studies that measured the impact of centre care on language development, 7 obtained unanimously positive effects meaning that the more time children spent in centre care, the higher their language scores. These results mirror the preponderance of research findings from the field of early language development: quantity of language experienced is positively related to language learning. One might assume that children generally hear and experience more language each day in a child care centre surrounded by teachers, assistants, volunteers, and other children.

# of Reports

Associate with Better Development Cognition Language Behaviour
More time in centre care 5 7 5
Less time in centre care 2 0 3
Mixed results 0 0 3
No relationship at all 7 3 4
Total # of Reports = 23

Highlights of a report on age of entry into non-parental child care:


Stability of Child Care

Only 3 of the 66 reports contained information about the relationship of development to a number of different child care arrangements the children experienced. No study measured the impact on language development. One study measured the impact on cognitive development and found that on one measure of school achievement children who had fewer child care arrangements (more stability) during preschool scored more favourably (+), and on a second measure (school skills) there was no impact of stability of care. All three reports examined the impact of stability of care on behavioural development; most results reflected no impact.

Overall, the reports found in our sample of 66 reports are too few in number to draw conclusions about possible negative or positive effects of number of child care arrangements on children’s development.


The advantage of centre care was tested directly and was related to better cognitive and language development. The positive outcomes of centre care are bolstered by data that seem to indicate that more time spent in centre care and earlier entry into centre care may be positively related to children’s development. The centre care is associated with better early language development. Results were obtained after statistically removing possible influences of the overall quality of child care so that the effects of type of care could be viewed independently of its quality.

Go to Scorecards for the results of each report or continue on to What factors of child care matter to children's development?

   2006 © Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation