sealPurdue News

April 1999

Purdue study finds factors in child-caregiver bond

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The child's eyes light up, he smiles and reaches up to be held. It's a moment that should warm a parent's heart, even when the person he's reaching up to is the baby sitter.

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In a study of in-home day care settings, Purdue University researchers measured the level of attachment security between caregivers and very young children. Several factors, including the age at which a child entered day care and the quality of the day care setting, predicted how well the caregivers and children would bond.

"We know that attachment security with parents is important for optimal child development," says James Elicker, assistant professor of child development and family studies. "With more and more infants spending many of their waking hours in the care of persons other than parents, we wanted to see what types of bonds were being formed in child care, because we assume they are important, too."

Elicker says the strengths of the bonds that developed between caregivers and infants did not detract from or reflect the bonds those children formed with their parents. "The behavior between caregivers and babies can look very much like that between parent and child," he says. "However, so far we have seen no evidence that it affects parental attachment in any way."

In some instances, infants who had a very insecure attachment to their parents developed healthy attachments to their caregivers. Elicker explains that the parent-child relationship is very intense. "It may be that the greater interaction and emotional involvement between parents and their children intensify what in some cases are unstable relationships," he says.

Elicker and fellow researchers observed children in child-care settings and at home with their parents. The study included 23 child-care homes and 41 children, ages 12 months to 19 months. Those in the study had been in the child-care home for at least two months for 20 or more hours per week. Results of the research have been accepted for publication later this year in the journal Applied Developmental Psychology.

Attachment security was measured by such things as the amount and quality of physical contact, communication, and the apparent sense of confidence the children displayed in the adult's ability to meet their needs. "Toddlers have no sophisticated knowledge of relationships. They just know who they love and who meets their needs," Elicker says.

Toddlers who had secure attachments with their caregivers would keep track of them, follow them around, call out to them and seek comfort from them when hurt. In the case of caregivers, the more they interacted with the toddlers, the more secure the bond between them.

Elicker says several conditions led to higher involvement between the caregivers and children. Children placed with the caregiver at a younger age were more likely to interact with the caregiver. "One month may be too soon to put a child in day care, because parents need time to adjust to their newborn infants," he says. "Children between 3 months and 6 months may make an easier transition to child care and adapt more readily to a new caregiver."

Attachments also were more secure for toddlers who were in high-quality settings. Environmental qualities that affected attachment included group size, health and safety practices, and whether the setting provided activities that would stimulate child development.

Elicker elected to study family child-care homes, because most children under age 2 are not cared for in formal day care centers. "Quite frankly, not all the child-care homes we studied would be considered good, and these child-care providers volunteered to have us in their homes. It's not hard to imagine that there are many more young children in poor quality settings that we didn't see," he says.

Elicker suggests parents be choosy in selecting a child-care home for their infant. He says guidelines are available from public, private and educational groups, including community child care and referral agencies. Among the suggestions:

  • Make sure the caregiver enjoys infants and toddlers and interacts with them. "The caregiver should love children. Training in child development is a plus, but not nearly as important as having a capacity for love and involvement," Elicker says.

  • Make sure the group is small enough so that your child will receive adequate attention.

  • Make sure the accommodations are clean and safe.

  • Make sure infants and toddlers participate in stimulating, age-appropriate activities.

Source: James Elicker, (765) 494-2938;

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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How many hazards can you find in this child-care home? (Purdue News Service illustration by Karen Colter)

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