PRESS RELEASE: Grandparents are not always the most effective childcarers, researchers say

10 February 2009

Many babies who are looked after by grandparents while their mothers are out at work might be better off in nurseries or crèches, a new study suggests.

Many babies who are looked after by grandparents while their mothers are out at work might be better off in nurseries or crèches, a new study suggests.

Grandparents can often help to develop a baby’s vocabulary but they may be unable to provide other educational and social experiences that an infant needs, say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London.

They have found that children looked after by grandparents at the age of 9 months were considered to have more behavioural problems at age 3 than those who had been in the care of a nursery, crèche, childminder, nanny or another family member. The research involved 4,800 UK children born in 2000 and 2001 who are being tracked by the Millennium Cohort Study. All of the children had mothers who worked when they were babies.

According to their mothers, children who had been cared for by grandparents – more than one in three of those studied – were more likely to have difficult relationships with other youngsters at age 3. Boys were said to have particular problems relating to their peers. The behaviour issue affected families of all social backgrounds.

Dr Kirstine Hansen and Dr Denise Hawkes also found that three-year-olds who had been in nurseries and crèches at 9 months were often more ready for school than those who had been looked after by grandparents, childminders, family members or friends. On average, they achieved higher scores in an assessment that measured their understanding of colours, letters, numbers, sizes, comparisons and shapes.

However, children with highly educated mothers tended to have more extensive vocabularies if they had been looked after by a grandparent – the maternal grandmother in most cases. Grandparents also had a positive effect on the vocabularies of children living in two-parent families, those with older mothers and those in families that were not claiming benefits.

“This may, of course, reflect the better vocabulary skills of grandmothers in such families,” says Dr Hansen, research director of the Millennium Cohort Study. “But it may also be partly because grandparents talk to children more than other carers, not only because they have more time, but because they compensate for a reduction in physical activities with the child.

“There is also evidence that older people are more likely to use grammatically correct sentences and speak more slowly to children. They are also less likely to tolerate grammatical errors and will correct their grandchildren’s language.”

The study did not investigate why children looked after by grandparents appear to exhibit more behavioural problems. But the researchers point out that some previous studies suggest pre-school settings such as nurseries can help children to develop the social skills they need to get on with their peers. “Children who are looked after by grandparents, on the other hand, spend more time with adults,” they add.

However, the researchers argue that grandparent childcarers deserve support rather than criticism. “Our research shows that grandparent care contributes both positively and negatively to child outcomes, and perhaps with government support this situation could be improved,” they say.

There are currently no allowances, tax breaks or grants for grandparents who care for grandchildren. If grandparents register as child minders they can receive support and training and can be paid by the parent who can claim back some of the cost through Working Tax Credit. However, at present, grandparents can only do this if they also care for a child who is not a relative.

“Understandably, many grandparents are unable or unprepared to take on this additional burden,” Dr Hansen says. “Perhaps a more flexible approach which offers training and support for informal carers should be considered rather than encouraging them down the formal care routes. It should be possible for grandparents to receive recognition and reward for the caring they are already doing.”

The study also found that girls appeared to benefit especially from time spent in nurseries and crèches, as did children from two-parent families and those with better-educated mothers. However, children with younger mothers and those living in households claiming benefits were also found to be more ready for school if they had attended nurseries or crèches.

“This is almost certainly because nurseries and crèches are more likely to offer structure and content to daily activities with children and their staff are more likely to be trained, to have better facilities and resources and to provide more educational stimulation,” the researchers say. “This is another of the study’s important findings because it suggests that this form of childcare has the potential to reduce inequalities.

“Our study therefore delivers a reassuring message for the UK government, which has invested a great deal in policies that are aimed at improving child outcomes and reducing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged families.”

The study’s findings will be reported in an article, “Early childcare and child development”, that will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Social Policy, published by Cambridge University Press. The online version of the article can be accessed via the CUP website from today (February 10).

For further information contact:

David Budge
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Notes for editors:

1. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Resource Centre based at the Institution of Education, University of London. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Government departments have contributed to the costs of collecting and reporting the MCS, and the ESRC’s programme on Understanding Population Change and Processes has funded the particular analysis reported here.

2. The data used in this paper come from the MCS. This is a longitudinal survey of around 19,000 children born in the UK over a 12-month period in 2000 to 2001 and living in selected UK wards at age 9 months. The first survey (MCS1) took place when the children were around 9 months old. The second survey (MCS2) was conducted when the children were around 3 years of age. Of the original 18,552 families who took part in the first sweep, 256 are excluded because they are multiple-birth families; 50 are dropped because the mother was under the age of 16 when she gave birth and 54 are left out because someone other than the mother provided information as the main respondent. We focus on childcare use by working mothers only to isolate better the association between childcare and child outcomes. Focusing on childcare use by working mothers reduces the MCS1 sample to 10,102. Of those, 6,537 also took part in the second sweep of the survey at age 3. However, a further 1,737 are dropped due to missing data. This leaves a sample of 4,800.

3. Three-year-olds who were assessed as part of MCS2 took the British Ability Scales (BAS) Naming Vocabulary subtest, which is part of a set of cognitive assessments designed for children aged 3 to 17 years. The assessment is individually administered. The interviewer asks the child to name a series of pictures of everyday items. There are 36 items in total, although the number each child is asked about is dependent on their performance. The assessment is terminated if five successive items are answered incorrectly. BAS assesses the expressive language ability of children. It was not administered to children who do not speak English.

4. School readiness was assessed using six subtests of the Revised Bracken Basic Concept Scale, which measures children’s knowledge of those ‘readiness’ concepts that parents and teachers traditionally teach them in preparation for formal education. The assessment is also individually administered and has been designed for children aged two-and-a-half to seven years and 11 months. The six subtests assess children’s basic concepts such as colours, letters, numbers/counting, sizes, comparisons and shapes. As a non-verbal test, requiring the child to point, but not speak, it could be given in oral translation to children who do not speak English. Both cognitive assessments were administered using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing by interviewers who were specially trained but were not professional psychologists.

5. The behavioural development of the children is measured with the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire. It is a behavioural screening questionnaire for 3 to 16-year-olds. It consists of 25 items which generate scores for five subscales measuring: conduct problems; hyperactivity; emotional symptoms; peer problems; and pro-social behaviour. The items are assessed via parental report, normally by the mother, in the computer-assisted self-completion module of the questionnaire.

6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice.


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