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Child Care - Effects on Child Behaviour

31 Mar 2006 3:18 AM -

The child care sector in Australia has experienced major growth since 1991. The most significant growth occurred in the early 1990s with the number of child care places provided by private operators increasing by almost four times over this period. In 2004, there were an estimated 752,800 children attending child care in Australia. This compares with an estimated 577,500 children in 1999 (an increase of 30%) and about 460,300 in 1994. Thus between 1994 and 2004, the number of children in care in Australia increased by about 63 per cent. Of the children attending child care in 2004, about 63 per cent were in long day care. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of children in after-school care increased by 50 per cent, and the number of children in vacation care increased by 46 per cent. Approximately 92% of children in long day care services were under 5 years of age and 16 per cent were under 2 years of age. In 2002, the majority of children using long day care attended for less than 30 hours a week, but 11 per cent attended for more than 40 hours per week and 3 per cent fore more than 50 hours per week. These figures were similar in 2004. In 2004, about 90 per cent of children in long day care were attending for reasons relating to their parents' work commitments. About 97 per cent of children in after-school care and 94 per cent in vacation care were attending for work-related reasons. In 2004, the Australian Government spent $1.6 billion on child care benefit payments. In the 2005 Federal budget, an additional $1.4 billion was pledged. The reasons for the increase in children attending child care are complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, what is clear is that more parents of young children are choosing to return to the workforce, with labour force participation figures during the 1990s and early this decade showing a steady increase in the number of women with children under the age of 15 years attending work. Between 1989 and 1999, the number of women with children under 4 years of age increase from 44 per cent to almost 50 per cent.

Since 1991, the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development in the USA has been conducting the study “Early Childhood Care & Youth Development (SECCYD)”, a comprehensive longitudinal study aiming to answer questions about the relationships between child care experiences, child care characteristics and children's developmental outcomes. The major goal of the NICHD Study is to examine how differences in child care experiences may impact on children's social, emotional, intellectual and language development, as well as their physical growth and health. The study aims to compare the development of children who were cared primarily by their mothers to those who spent much of their time in non-maternal care. Phase IV of the study is due to be completed in 2007. Final results are yet to be published, but many of the preliminary results have been published in a number of journals.

In 2003, the NICHD published some of its preliminary results in the journal ‘Child Development'. The results indicated that the more time children spent in child care from birth to age four-and-a-half, the more adults tended to rate them as less likely to get along with others, as more assertive, as disobedient, and as aggressive. Researchers stated that amount of time in child care is one of several family and child care factors linked to children's behaviours, both positive and negative. The link between time in child care and problem behaviour was greater than the link between infant temperament and problem behaviour, or maternal depression and problem behaviour. The authors noted that, of all the children who displayed problem behaviours, the majority were within the normal range. A small proportion of children showed levels of problem behaviour that should be monitored to see if they developed into more serious problems. Findings previously reported by the NICHD Study showed that more time in care predicted more problem behaviour among two-year olds, less sensitive maternal behaviour, less harmonious mother-child interaction as well as higher rates of insecure attachment to the mother, if the mother's parenting was relatively insensitive.

One of the most important findings of the study is that the strongest predictor of how well a child behaves was ‘maternal sensitivity' – how attuned a mother is to a child's wants and needs. The behaviours of a sensitive mother are child-centred, being aware of the child's needs, moods, interests and capabilities. Children of more sensitive mothers were more competent socially, less likely to engage in disruptive behaviour, and less likely to be involved in conflicts with caregivers and teachers. The authors stated that parents should remember that the quality of their parenting is the most important predictor of their child's development. Good parenting means a lot of things – being sensitive and responsive to children's needs, setting appropriate limits for children, and showing children love and affection. Parents should monitor their child's development and behaviour. They should observe for themselves whether their children seem to be having behaviour problems and should act early if problems become evident.


  1. Australian Government, Dept of Family & Community Services. 2004 Census of Child Care Services. http://www.facs.gov.au/
  2. Australian Government, Dept of Family & Community Services. 2002 Census of Child Care Services. http://www.facs.gov.au/
  3. Australian Government, Dept of Family & Community Services. 1999 Census of Child Care Services. http://www.facs.gov.au/
  4. The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD). www.nichd.nih.gov/od/secc/summary.htm
  5. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD). www.nichd.nih.gov/new/releases/child_care.cfm
  6. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). http://www.gse.harvard.edu/