Even though President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill failed in 2021, there is a push to resurrect “core” components, including its child care plan. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), whose vote is critical to its passing, previously affirmed his support of the child care portion of the bill, allocating $400 billion to create an entitlement program to massively expand use of full-time child care. Some are celebrating. After all, this “historic, transformative investment” promises to expand child care access to “about 20 million children,” with “9 out of 10 families with children under age 6 eligible for guaranteed child care assistance,” and five million families paying nothing. Others are celebrating the creation of an entitlement child care program that promises to dramatically increase labor-force participation of mothers with young children, increasing the tax base. In Nancy Pelosi’s words, what could be a better way to get “Children learning, parents earning?”
Ironically, however, more day care is not what most American parents actually want for their children. A recent survey of American adults conducted by YouGov confirmed what other surveys have consistently found. Of the full-time working mothers in the sample, only 11% said using center-based child care full time is the best arrangement for families with children under age 5. The most preferred model for care was flexible work where both parents share care (37%), followed by a model where one parent stays home full-time (27%), relatives provide child care full time (14%), or one parent staying at home part time (12%). Just months earlier, the American Compass Survey found that the majority of married mothers preferred to have one full-time earner, and one stay-at-home parent when children were young. Especially among lower-, working-, and middle-class respondents, a full-time, stay-at-home parent was the most popular arrangement.
In fact, for decades, a majority of mothers of young children have said they prefer part-time or no employment over full-time employment. Typical of other findings, a recent IFS report found that 65% of mothers with children under age five preferred part-time or no employment compared to 35% who said working full-time was ideal.
Mothers seem to sense there is something important about the care they (and other family members) provide during the earliest period of children’s development. It’s an important intuition borne out in science. Over the last decade, unparalleled developments in the field of neuroscience have transformed our understanding of human development. Observing the self-organization of the infant brain has confirmed that the development of the infant’s mind and body needs to occur within the context of a relationship with another deeply invested mind and body. Mind and body development is not just genetically encoded; it is dependent on experience and a specific quality of social-emotional experience.
By birth, the areas of the brain that process emotional and social information (amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, cingulate cortex, and ortibofrontal cortex) are present, but the connections among these areas develop through a relationship that must be experienced as predictable, consistent, and emotionally available. In fact, research confirms that the essential task of the first period of infancy is the co-creation of a bond of emotional communication between the infant and primary caregiver. From the moment the infant leaves the womb, she is searching, communicating, interacting—primed to sensitively perceive and seek out a particular caregiver, first her mother’s smell, tone of voice, and touch for whom she already demonstrates a preference.
The mother is also psycho-biologically primed to establish the bond through which the emotional communication between them that is essential for brain development can occur. Face-to-face, body-to-body, sound-to-sound, right brain-to-right brain, they communicate and co-regulate, reading one another’s faces (incidentally, an infant has more space in the brain for processing the face of a woman) with a specific focus on the eyes. To the baby’s non-verbal cues, a mother responds with “motherese,” a unique form of musical speech. In the process, the caregiver regulates the emotions of the infant—who has little capacity to regulate them—minimizing negative feelings, while maximizing positive feelings, soothing and calming and also upregulating states of excitement and happiness. Meanwhile, the stress hormone cortisol is dropping, and the bonding hormone, oxytocin, is being activated, while cardiovascular systems, immune systems, and brain states in the baby are being calmed and regulated.
An estimated one million new synapses are forming each second, leading to a literal doubling in brain size during the first year and a half of life. And most of it happens within a very specific section of the brain—the right brain, the emotion side; the side in which the development of personality, capacity for attention, regulation of stress, capacity to experience and read emotions, development of self-awareness, social intelligence, empathy, and capacity for intimacy is centered. In neuropsychologist Allan Schore’s words, quite literally through this exquisitely emotional relationship, “Mother nature and mother nurture combine to shape human nature.”
And what of fathers? Neuropsychological development indicates that mother and father are not equal systems; they both form a unique bond with the baby that is important to development. Mother-infant bonding shows a greater influence on the subcortical limbic emotion-processing structures, while father-infant bonding shows a greater influence on cognitive processing networks. Each bond plays a critical role, beginning with mother and infant during the earliest period of development, with father and infant taking a stronger role in toddlerhood.
What does this developmental reality mean to questions about the push for universal (full-time) center-based child care? In many ways, it helps explain findings suggesting that extensive hours in day care, starting in infancy, are associated with increased social-emotional risks across development. Obviously, not all children will experience those risks, but some, if not many, will. It also helps explain repeated findings that cortisol levels rise across the day for infants in nonparental care settings, and the potential risks of a persistent “stress response” for infants and toddlers in extensive hours of daycare.
Most importantly, our understanding of mother-infant attachment underscores why so many parents intuitively prefer child care arrangements other than nonparental group care. Government assistance in the form of tax credits and cash assistance are strongly preferred by these families because they enable parents to choose the child care arrangement they think is best rather than funneling all of that assistance into a “one-size-fits-all” massive expansion of center-based care.
We should not interpret these findings as suggesting that spending any time in child care during the early years of development puts children at risk. In fact, evidence suggests that high-quality care can often be beneficial for children from disadvantaged homes. On the other hand, young children from average, healthy homes could be harmed by spending long hours away from their parents. It would be wise to assume, as has been found in Quebec, that moving millions of young children out of their homes into nonparental group care is likely to have unintended negative effects on children’s emotional and social well-being.
Whatever optimizes healthy brain and social-emotional development, especially during the early period of development, should be driving our child care policy. As originally constructed, “Build Back Better” failed. Instead of trying to push through a massive new investment in out-of-home care, President Biden should seek common ground for parents by reviving a plan like Senator Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah), which gives parents cash to make the child care choices they desire, and that maximize parent-infant bonding and attachment. As Dr. Allan Schore has described, within the health of these developmental processes are the representations of our futures. These early stages model the potential of our individual and collective identity—the key to overall sustainable development—the core to human capital formation. After all, these are the future members of our societies.
Jenet Erickson is a Research Fellow of The Wheatley Institution and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.