The most far-reaching and comprehensive study to date has found that using child care does not affect infants’ trust in their mothers.
The results, announced Saturday at a conference in Providence, R.I., run counter to several previous studies that seemed to show that infants in child care were slightly more likely to have an insecure relationship with their mothers than those whose mothers stayed at home with them.
The earlier research had alarmed some experts and parents because other studies indicate that troubled bonds between infants and mothers could signal emotional and behavioral problems later.
The new study was designed to try to address one of the most emotionally charged issues in society today: Does a mother put her child at risk by working outside the home?
It reported that the sense of trust felt by 15-month-old children in their mothers was not affected by whether the children were in day care, by how many hours they spent there, by the age they entered day care, by the quality or type of care or by how many times care arrangements were changed.
However, the study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development cautioned Saturday that low-quality child care, more than 10 hours per week in care and multiple-care arrangements do adversely affect infant attachment when combined with maternal insensitivity.
Dr. Eleanor Maccoby of Stanford University, a renowned scholar on early childhood development, said the survey will continue to provide valuable information as the country adjusts to the steadily increasing presence of mothers in the work force.
“There are enormous policy implications here,” Maccoby said. “To say nothing of how mothers feel about themselves, and wonder, if they go to work, how it affects their children when they send them off to day care.”
The study has been following the children of more than 1,300 families from birth through the first grade, offering researchers in the oftenacrimonious world of social science a chance to test competing ideas.
Psychologists have long disagreed over how important and lasting are the effects of the mother-child bond this study measures, which is known as “attachment.”
The scientists measured attachment by watching children’s reactions when their mothers returned after brief separations.
Children who sought comfort from their mothers were judged to be secure. Researchers evaluated mothers by videotaping them with children and grading the mothers’ sensitivity according to accepted criteria.
Compared with previous studies, this one includes more diverse families and more types of child care. It has observed children at home as well as in child care and laboratories, following children from birth through 7 years of age.
Researchers emphasize that many questions remain unanswered, and they must await later stages of the project to see if the links described Saturday last. Children who look secure now could be insecure later.
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