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Good day care boosts poor kids’ mental health

Young adults who grow up in poor, unstable homes face an increased risk of depression, but high-quality day care during their early years can counteract the effects of a disadvantaged environment, a new study shows.
/ Source: Reuters

Young adults who grow up in poor, unstable homes face an increased risk of depression, but high-quality day care during their early years can counteract the effects of a disadvantaged environment, a new study shows.

“These early experiences can have really long-lasting effects,” Dr. Elizabeth P. Pungello of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters Health. “We need to be using our limited resources to make those early experiences the highest quality that they can be.”

The findings are described in the journal Child Development.

Led by graduate student Andrea E. McLaughlin, Pungello and her team looked at depressive symptoms in 104 21-year-olds. The young men and women had, in infancy, been randomly assigned to full-time day care up to 5 years of age, or a comparison ”control” group. Researchers visited the homes of all of the children and used a standardized scoring system to gauge the quality of home life.

Staff at the child care center received a “decent wage” and benefits, a relative rarity among child care workers, Pungello noted. This meant there was little staff turnover while the children were in the program, she added; she and her colleagues point out that the stability of the children’s daycare “family” was likely greater than home stability for many.

Children received developmentally appropriate education and stimulation, which didn’t involve trying to teach 2-year-olds to read, noted Dr. Frances Campbell, another study author. Instead, it meant talking a lot to infants and giving children plenty of opportunities to learn from the environment and plenty of things to play with, she said. “It was always taken for granted that they were learning and developing.”

As adults, the researchers found, those who had not attended the child care program showed higher levels of depressive symptoms, and 37 percent met diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. Among the child care attendees, 26 percent scored high enough on tests of depressive symptoms to be considered clinically depressed.

When the team looked at quality of home life and later risk of depression among the individuals who didn’t attend child care, they found the worse a person’s home environment, the greater his or her depression risk. Conversely, for the study participants who had attended child care, having a worse early home life didn’t influence later depression risk.

“The program buffered the effects of that difficult home environment,” Campbell said.

She and her colleagues conclude: “Evidence that good early childhood experiences can make a positive difference in the mental health of individuals born into poverty underscores the importance of investing in high quality early childhood experiences for poor children.”