Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001
Redistribution of Infant and Toddler Care
The rapid growth in maternal employment is among the most commonly noted trends of the past quarter century. In 1975, some 34% of mothers with children under age three were in the workforce. In 2000, this figure reached 61%. Among mothers of infants, rates of employment climbed from 50% to 56% in just the past decade.1 (See Figure 1.) Accordingly, the care of infants and toddlers has undergone a dramatic transition from being the primary responsibility of mothers to becoming the shared responsibility of parents and child care providers.
According to national surveys, by the mid-1990s, about 6 million infants and toddlers were in some form of regular, nonparental child care.2 A more striking portrait of infant and toddler child care is revealed when families' child care decisions are followed from birth. This is exactly what was done in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care.3 This study has followed a diverse (but not nationally representative) sample of more than 1,200 families around the country since their baby's birth to track and understand the consequences of their child care choices (see Box 1).4 Almost three-quarters of the infants (72%) experienced regular, nonparental child care during the first year of life, with the vast majority entering care before four months of age. Families that were heavily dependent on the mother's wages, and those who had experienced bouts of poverty or welfare dependence, placed their infants in child care at the earliest age (prior to three months old), whereas those with higher incomes were able to wait a bit longer. For the vast majority of infants, this point of first entry marks the beginning of a child care history that stretches into the mid-elementary school years.
Children not only start child care within the first few months of life, but they are in extensive hours of care from the beginning. The infants in the NICHD study averaged 28 hours of nonparental child care per week when they were first enrolled. These numbers correspond closely to nationally representative data from the National Survey of America's Families (see Box 2), which indicate that infants and toddlers with working mothers, who were enrolled in child care in 1997 spent, on average, 25 hours per week in their main arrangement.5
It is difficult to determine whether this surge in infant and toddler child care is due to choice or to the necessity of early and extensive employment. Both possibilities are undoubtedly true, to differing degrees, for different families. Yet, the incentives built into national policies and the strong economy create substantial costs for families who rely exclusively on parent care during the first months and years of life. As a result, child care is now a common and permanent fixture on the landscape of early experiences. If young children were in child care sporadically or for only a minimal number of hours, its developmental consequences might matter less. This is, however, decidedly not the case.