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Don HubinAugust 13, 2019 by Don Hubin, Ph.D.

Decisions about whether and when to use daycare can influence custody decisions when parents divorce. Parents often struggle with these decisions in any case and they can be more fraught when the parents separate. Both parents might be working more because, as we all know, it costs more to live separately than together.

Imagine a divorcing father; let’s call him ‘Bob’. Bob works full time during regular business hours but, being a highly engaged father, he asks the court for equal shared parenting. He’s managed to rearrange his work hours so that, on the days his parenting plan has the children living with him, he can be home by the time the older children get out of school. But his plan would require him to use the daycare provided by his local church six hours a day for two or three days a week for his youngest. Bob’s soon-to-be-ex tells the court that she’s planning to remarry, quit her job, and be a stay-at-home mom for her children and those of her soon-to-be-husband.

Imagine a different scenario: a divorcing mother, Ann, has been working part time but the separation has required her to go up to full time. Like Bob, Ann asks the court for equal shared parenting. But, to make that possible, Ann would have to use daycare for her youngest child two to three days a week. Ann’s soon-to-be-ex works from home and would be happy to have the children in his care all through the week, allowing Ann to be an “every-other-weekend-and-one-evening-a-week-parent”. 

Should the court view the parenting plans that Bob and Ann present to the court with skepticism? Are these parents planning to subject their youngest child to an experience that will traumatize the children? Will their plans result in serious emotional and behavioral deficits throughout their youngest children’s childhood and later in their lives?

Welcome to the daycare wars! For many families, intact or divided, there is really no feasible option but to use daycare. But when there is, parents need to think carefully about what’s best for their children. However, when parents separate, this can become a point of contention. Courts often get involved as one parent argues against the other parent’s parenting plan because it would involve the use of daycare.

What does the research say? Unfortunately, the research is mixed. There is serious, credible research indicating that daycare can cause problems for some children. But, these matters are extremely complex and it’s not possible to do controlled experiments to test out crucial hypotheses. And there is also serious, credible research that indicates that high quality childcare is not harmful even for very young children. Some research even indicates benefits for children in daycare.

What are some of these benefits? 
  • A recent, large, widely-reported French study found that “Compared to children who spent at least 1 year in center-based childcare, those who spent less than 1 year with a childminder as well as those who were in informal care had higher levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties.”
  • A 2013 study by researchers in the Netherlands indicates that children who go to daycare develop increased non-verbal communication skills, apparently from experiencing a wider variety of social and communicative situations than their peers who have not gone to daycare.
  • While young children in daycare are more prone to infectious illnesses than those cared for at home, “Researchers found that, for reasons unknown, once daycare kids are in grade school, they have 21 percent fewer respiratory infections and 43 percent fewer ear infections than the children who did not attend childcare centers.”
  • A series of studies done in the early 2000s by a team of researchers establishes  that daycare children have a 30% lower chance of developing a common type of childhood leukaemia (blood cancer) than children who did not go to daycare. Why? Apparently those early infections that kids track home from daycare have beneficial effects on the immune system.

Does this research mean that, on balance, daycare for all young children is beneficial? No. It means that the story is complicated, that the benefits and risks of daycare depend on a variety of other factors, including the child’s temperament and home environment,  and that there is significant disagreement among experts who research in this area. For a nice balanced discussion of these matters, see
this informative blog article by Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the effects of daycare on children’s wellbeing.

Given the state of the research, parents should not tolerate a judge telling them that they should not have equal parenting time on the grounds that their plan would involve the use of daycare, which is harmful to their children. Being deprived of the full involvement of one of your loving parents is most certainly harmful to children.

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