Child Care :: High-quality child care for poor children found to offset the risk of later depression

Young adults from low-income families who were in full-time early educational child care from infancy to age 5 report fewer symptoms of depression than their peers who were not in this type of care.

The early educational intervention also appears to have protected the children to some extent against the negative effects of their home environments. These findings highlight the value of investing in high quality early childhood experiences for low-income children.

Those are the conclusions of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington at Seattle. The study is published in the May/June 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.

Research has shown a relationship between poverty in early childhood and an increased risk for mental health problems in adulthood. A number of early intervention programs have been found to enhance the cognitive development and academic outcomes of children living in poverty, but less is known about the long-term effects of these programs on children’s mental health.

Some 111 children were enrolled as infants in the Abecedarian Project, a North Carolina-based study in which high-risk children were randomly assigned to early educational child care from infancy to age 5; a control group did not receive such care. All children came from low-income families with demographic factors known to predict developmental delays or academic problems; 98 percent were African-American. As part of the study, developmental and demographic data were collected regularly during the early childhood years with follow-up assessments in adolescence and young adulthood.

The study found that young adults who had participated in the child care program as young children had fewer symptoms of depression than those who had not taken part. The study also found that early child care moderated the effect of the children’s home environment, offsetting the relationship between the early home environment and subsequent feelings of depression.

In contrast, among the young adults who did not attend the early care program as young children, the more negative the early home environment, the greater the likelihood that these individuals would show signs of depression.

“The early intervention, which was largely child centered, does not appear to have changed home environments,” according to Frances A. Campbell, senior scientists at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the authors of the study. “Rather it buffered, or protected, the treated children from the adverse effects of less optimal early home environments on depressive symptoms. Evidence indicating 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.”

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