Magazine Feature / People

Watamura researching effects of day care on kids

Parents may not want to hear what DU psychology Assistant Professor Sarah Watamura has to tell them: Day care can challenge kids.

Watamura, director of the University’s Child Health and Development Lab, has found that many children show different patterns of production of the hormone cortisol on days when they are at day care compared with days when they are at home.

“At home, preschool-age children typically show a decreasing pattern of cortisol production across the day,” Watamura says. “At child care, many children show a rising pattern,” indicating that challenge is present at day care.

Cortisol is a product of the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which controls reactions to stress and helps regulate various body processes including digestion, the immune system and energy usage. Cortisol levels sharply increase when a person is in a challenging situation, providing energy.

Cortisol is always present in the body, typically at higher levels in the morning and falling off towards bedtime. But when levels remain elevated due to chronic stress, cortisol can suppress the immune system, inhibit growth and possibly affect attention and memory.

While at Cornell University in 2004 and 2005, Watamura studied children at “very-high-quality child care” — those centers achieving high scores on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised, including many classrooms with master’s level teachers, a high degree of family involvement and ample resources. A report of that research is currently under review by the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

“We were intrigued because Sarah was beginning to track just how stressful life in group care settings might be for some children and what strategies, teaching practices and interventions might alleviate that stress,” says Elizabeth Stillwell, director of the Early Childhood Center at Cornell, one of the study sites.

Sixty-five children, most between the ages of 3 and 5, took part in the study. Cortisol was measured via saliva samples extracted from cotton swabs, taken at 10:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on child- care days and home days.

“The idea of asking children to chew cotton swabs and spit them out at first sounded a bit overwhelming,” Stillwell says. “When the children started referring to Sarah as ‘spit Sarah’ and asking hopefully if she was coming today, we knew that it was not a concern for them.”

The rising pattern across the child-care day seen in an earlier study was replicated, although in a much smaller proportion of the children than previously reported. When children returned home from child care, cortisol levels returned to levels observed on non-child-care days even for children who showed the rising cortisol pattern during child care.

Watamura plans to continue this line of research to include a broader sample of families. She hopes to identify what specific child-care situations cause children’s stress and how cortisol levels impact health and development.

“Until we have more solid research on how the increases affect kids’ development, parents should use their instincts about their child’s care,” Watamura says.

“If it feels like a good, supportive place, your child will be fine.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, April 2007.

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