Twenty years ago, as society debated whether children who attended day care would suffer long-term damage, the National Institutes of Health initiated the longest-running U.S. study of babies and toddlers in child care.
Now, those babies are teenagers, and the study has found that day care actually enhanced their academic success. If, that is, those children were enrolled in high-quality care.
Researchers defined quality care as having warm, supportive caregivers who provide cognitive stimulation to the children. Babies and preschoolers who attended such day cares scored slightly higher in academic and cognitive measures as teens than those in lower-quality care.
The study, which tracked 1,300 children nationwide, was published in the journal Child Development and funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
It found that the teens' achievement pattern was the same regardless of family income, the mother's level of education and the mother's reports of depression.
Maria Whelan, president and CEO of the non-profit group Illinois Action for Children, isn't surprised that quality care can benefit children from any socio-economic background. What shocks her is that society has yet to make such care affordable.
"The prevailing attitude is that day care only has to be good enough, and we can underfund it," she says. Quality child care centers that are receiving state support, she says, are able to improve programs only through other resources, such as finding grant money or charging parents higher fees.
Whelan says many working poor families pay 15 percent of their income in child care, compared with roughly 8 percent for middle and upper income families. Recently, Act for Children has been able to use federal funds to help some families reduce the bite that child care can take out of a poor family's budget.
But financial support for strong child care needs to reach even more families, she says. "We have these little tiny windows of time when children are young, and this massive opportunity to give them a quality experience."
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.