Non parental daycare? Recent Research says NO


Concerned parents are busy parents. They work overtime to ensure that their family is provided for; not only do they put in hours at the workplace, but they come home to an entirely different job. In today’s work environment, parents can rarely afford an entire day to spend with their child. As such, parents often look to daycare or nannies to pick up the slack. Choices for childcare run the gamut from personal nanny or a grandmother to non parental daycare centers.  Understanding what powers your child’s development is incredibly important when deciding where your child spends their day.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory says that there is a primary attachment figure in every child’s life. The principal or primary attachment figure is usually their birth mother, but is always the person whom they want most when they are frightened or hurt. There are also subsidiary or secondary attachment figures, referring to the few others that are nearest and dearest to a child. Common examples of secondary attachment figures are siblings, nannies, grandparents, and fathers (who form a unique bond with their child). At roughly 6 months old, most babies already show a strong preference for one person, and by 9 months old they have developed the ability to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people. Babies 12 to 14 months old usually have well established bonds with their primary attachment figure.

The 12 to 14 month range is when the “Strange Situation Procedure” can be used in order to assess the quality of their attachment bond. The test involves a room with mother, baby, and a stranger; the mother will leave the room while the stranger enters and spends time alone with the child, then the stranger will leave and the mother will return. The children are almost always distressed during the absence of their mother, and must be calmed and comforted upon her return. This test demonstrates the mother’s ability to comfort their child and satisfy the attachment-seeking response, as well as the toddler’s ability to accept comfort and return to normal. Effectiveness in returning to normal play is used as a measure of a child’s attachment.

How can a baby’s attachment-seeking response be satisfied if there is no access to an attachment figure? A protracted state of attachment-seeking is highly distressing to babies and only attention from primary or secondary attachment figures can quell their pain. Herein lies a crucial problem for parents who work all day to provide for their family.

Parental or Non Parental: That Is The Question

Children require a great deal of bonding time with a trusted attachment figure in order to develop socially and emotionally. Observational research from the 1950s displayed that babies, toddlers and young children who stayed in a hospital for 10 or more days were significantly impacted by the brief visits parents could make. Regardless of the child’s physical health, the constant longing for an attachment figure left them helpless, and many of those observed grew up with echoes of that trauma in their psyche. This research led to the current policies in pediatric wards that provide parents with overnight accommodations.

More recently, researchers have raised another concern: similar but more subtle trauma may be experienced by toddlers and babies who frequent non parental daycare. Recent evidence that has showed slight increases in negative behavior later in a child’s life linked to the children who spent the most time in non parental daycare. The kinds of psychological damage that may be inflicted from this kind of trauma are hard to detect and quantify – this may be why the research in question displayed only slight increases. Regardless, negative effects stemming from non parental daycare have been observed in academic research. This alone should be a red flag for parents deciding between parental and non parental daycare options.

Research Says to Reconsider Non Parental Daycare

Just because a daycare has a high pedigree doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy place to leave your child. The staff may be extremely caring and friendly. The facility could be secure, clean and full of activities. Regardless, your child will rarely spend enough time with one of their caregivers to form a bond as a secondary attachment figure. Unavailable attachment figures in non parental daycare can result in babies and toddlers with increased levels of cortisol, a primary stress hormone. The research examined in this article points out that there are twin risk factors for babies and toddlers: risk at home from insecure attachment, and another risk factor from non parental daycare. Non parental daycare often does not provide a “good enough” secondary attachment figure. Together, these risks can contribute to future mental health problems.

Some daycare organizations have adopted practices to provide the necessary secondary attachment for babies and toddlers in their care. They employ a core group of trained professionals, from which a single figure will develop a real bond with a child in the same kind of environment as day nurseries. If you cannot find a proper nanny or childminder, then it is critical that you properly assess your daycare options. Finding a daycare where there is the opportunity for your child to form a secondary attachment is key in preventing any negative outcomes.



Sir Richard Bowlby is President, Centre for Child Mental Health and son of the famous attachment researcher, John Bowlby.


Title: Attachment & Human Development

Peer-Reviewed: Yes

Impact Factor: 2.127

Sponsor: Official Journal of the Society for Emotion and Attachment Studies

Publisher: Taylor & Francis


Study Design: Theoretical article examining a model of non-parental daycare that actively promotes and monitors long-term secondary attachment bonds between baby and carer.


Bowlby, R. (2007). Babies and toddlers in non-parental daycare can avoid stress and anxiety if they develop a lasting secondary attachment bond with one carer who is consistently accessible to them. Attachment & Human Development9(4), 307-319. doi:10.1080/1461673070171151