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The Daycare Dilemma

Q. I'm happily staying home with my newborn for her first year. It's a real stretch for us financially, so I need to return to work when she turns 1. But I just read that children who spend a lot of time in daycare are more aggressive and stressed out, and now I feel terrible about going back to my job. What can I do?

A. Returning to work after having a baby is rarely easy. The most recent data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Child Care Research Network has not helped, with its negative findings about daycare and behavior issues, in some cases. Nor has the sensational news coverage that resulted from these reports. But as you probably know intuitively, children's behavior is complex and affected by so many other things. Just as staying home can not guarantee you a compliant, gentle child, going to work doesn't doom your family to years of defiance, either. Educate yourself first and then figure out who your child is and how you can best meet her -- and your -- needs.

The latest research In 1991, NICHD began a national study of infants to identify the effects of non-maternal care on young children -- anyone other than the mother, from Dad to Grandma to a nanny to center-based daycare. The researchers made sure to obtain a sample of 6-month-old children that represented different geographic, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic sectors of the U.S.

One of the most dramatic, and certainly the most publicized, bits of data is this upsetting finding: The greater the number of hours spent in childcare from 3 months to 4 years of age, the higher the level of disobedience and aggression displayed by the child in kindergarten, as reported by the child's teacher. The less-quoted fact is that these levels of negative behavior were still in the normal range --that is, they didn't warrant intervention.

Unfortunately, however, that's not all: In another recent study, researchers found that the stress levels of toddlers (children aged 16 to 38 months) increased over the course of the day while at full-day, center-based daycare. On days when the kids were home, their stress levels decreased as the day progressed. The researchers also observed that the increases in stress were more pronounced among toddlers than among infants, especially those toddlers who played less with their peers and were more fearful in social situations. This pattern of results led the researchers to conclude that a possible source of the stress seen among toddlers was the higher social demands, relative to those of infants, they experienced in the childcare setting. On the more positive side, other research has shown that high-quality childcare and a sensitively attuned mother can make up for some of the potentially negative effects.

Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She has two sons and a daughter.

What It Means For You

Despite all of the valid reasons for working, most moms still feel guilty. Use that guilt to drive you to make the best choices for your child within your circumstances.

* Postpone working for as long as you can, if possible. You'll have more time to get to know your baby, which, besides being a wonderful thing in and of itself, is important for practical reasons as well: The better sense you have of your baby's temperament, the better job you can do at finding the right childcare match for her personality.

* When the time comes to choose childcare, opt for the highest quality you can afford. While this may seem obvious, make sure you know what "high quality" is -- it does not necessarily mean having the fanciest playground in town, or the one with the trendiest educational philosophy, but instead finding a situation that fits your child's needs. For example, some centers encourage children to choose their own activities from a range of options and avoid "directing" the child, except at obvious times (e.g., feeding or safety issues). But a child who is easily distracted might focus better, and feel less stressed, if encouraged to stick with an activity.

Consider where your child is developmentally when you choose a center as well. While a state-of-the-art computer center might be great for a preschooler, good adult-child ratios and loving, responsive interactions are essential for infants. For toddlers, look for adults who engage in pretend play with the children and who help them develop social skills.

* Pay particular attention to a shy child who may have an easier time in a setting in which social interactions are structured rather than one in which she is given many activities to choose from.

Yet another option, if it's possible, is to give a shy toddler shorter days of non-maternal care. Since the data indicate that stress increases as the day progresses, working part-time or otherwise finding a way to get your child home early might make the days easier for her.

* Be attentive at home. Work extra hard to make sure that you are still meeting her emotional needs by being responsive to her cues. This is no small challenge, particularly at the end of a long day. Do whatever you can to power through the evening, placing your baby first. If it means sitting in the car for 15 minutes before picking up your child from daycare, do it -- 15 more minutes of your absence is less frustrating (and less noticeable) to your child than 15 minutes of you being physically present but preoccupied. Don't worry about a multi-step dinner recipe or a tidy house at this time -- your daughter would rather read with you than eat a fancy meal. Similarly, try to make her bedtime routine gentle and consistent. Don't vacillate between letting her stay up because you want to catch up on missed time with her and rushing her to sleep because you need to do the laundry. On weekends, try not to schedule too many activities so that she can relax and spend unstructured time with you.

* Communicate with the caregiver. Talk regularly with the caregiver so that you know about your child's life away from you. Your daughter may not be happy to have you spend time talking to another grown-up when you've come to pick her up, so you might have to come up with an alternate communication plan (e.g., exchanging notes or talking on the phone once your baby is asleep).

* Finally, try to find some peace with your decision. While you can't necessarily escape guilt or stress, realize that you are doing the best you can and that your love and effort will not be lost on your child. Remember, there are many experiences that will have an impact upon your child as she goes through life -- peers, teachers, popular culture -- and your job throughout will be to remain steady and available. None of these many outside influences will be as enduring or as important as her bond with you. Nurture that relationship and everyone will benefit.