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Working mothers vs. Stay-at-Home Mothers has been a controversy since the "Mommy Wars" of the 90s. Here, we look at the effects on children of being in daycare vs. having an SAHM in our uniquely determinedly nondefinitive, nonjudgmental guide.

Whether to stay at home with the children or put their youngsters in daycare and return to work is one of the most controversial issues affecting modern parents.

Whatever you decide, chances are that someone will tell you you've made the wrong decision, an irresponsible decision, a decision that may prove damaging for your child.

So, without further ado, let me present the determinedly nondefinitive, nonjudgmental guide to staying-at-home and daycare, exploring what each choice could mean for your child's wellbeing and development. We'll also explore how you can make sure that your choice is as enriching as possible for your child.  

The rise of the Working Mother

A UK study showed that 76% of mothers return to work by the time their child is 18 months old. In the US, that figure is a little lower, with 71% of mothers working outside the home. In the US, the figure of SAHMs has risen from 1999, its lowest level in history, when only 23% of women chose to stay at home to raise their children, although it is considerably lower than 1967 (when records began), when 49% of American mothers considered themselves "homemakers".

41% of adults interviewed say this rise in working mothers is "bad for society".

Grandparents are still the most popular option of childcare for working parents and is generally considered a good option, if parents are healthy and willing.


Let's start with the bad news.

Research by Dutch scientists Vermeer and van IJzendoorn found that being in daycare raised child's cortisol levels (the stress hormone), particularly in very young children (under three years). The children only had these effects while at daycare. It was thought that stressful interactions in the group setting were partly to blame.

Kathy Sylva is a professor at the University of Oxford  who has spent a great deal of time researching the effects of nursery-care on young children. After tracking 3000 children since 1996, she found that early nursery-care did raise aggression in young children moderately at the ages of five and seven. However, this affect was temporary. Increased aggression was absent by age eleven.

In another study of 1000 babies, placed into daycare at three-months, Sylva found no rise in behavioural problems at three-years.

However, Sylva is guarded in her recommendations about daycare:

"For under-twos, it is a careful decision...but there are many, many children in the study who had no bad effects that we could measure...If the child is a healthy child, in a family that is supportive and caring and goes to a high-quality childcare setting, the evidence is that the child is not at risk."

In the 1980s, Belsky undertook a study of 1000 children. It confirms most of what Sylva found more than a decade later about aggression and demonstrated that children in daycare are more disobedient at the age of four-and-a-half. On the positive side, he also found that high-quality childcare leads to an improvement in cognitive and language skills, up to and including 15-years-old.

A 2010 review of 50 years of research found no evidence that being in childcare by the age of three predicted behavioural problems later in life. A study from the mid-1970s found that (when a child had a quality family-life and quality daycare) there was no difference in attachment, language, or social skills in children cared for by daycare workers or mothers.

And there may be more positives. Working mothers may be leading to a more equal society and more opportunities for women. A 2015 study of 13,326 women and 18,152 men by Harvard Business School found that women whose mothers were employed outside the home while they were children are:

  • More likely to be employed
  • More likely to hold supervisory positions
  • More likely to earn higher wages.

Meanwhile, men are more likely to:

  • Help with household chores
  • Care for family members

This was partly due to having a role model of gender-equality. Researcher McGinn says:

"I think for both mothers and for fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable."

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