Does daycare cause stress in small children?

by @NTNUhealth 13 August 2013

Blogger:May Britt DrugliMay Britt Drugli




Research from several different countries has shown that spending time in child daycare institutions may cause increased levels of stress in small children. In Norway 80 percent of 1-year-olds attend daycare. We know nothing about their stress levels.

In the international studies the children’s stress levels have been measured through analysing the levels of cortisol, also called “the stress hormone”, in spit samples taken at different times in the cause of a day. Our levels of the hormone cortisol increase in situations involving danger and make our bodies prepared for situations perceived as difficult or threatening.



Normally, our levels of cortisol are highest in the morning, decrease during the day and are at their lowest in the evening. Research in other countries has shown that many of the smallest children attending daycare institutions have cortisol levels that remain high throughout the day. When the children spend a day at home their cortisol levels act normally again, falling during the day. This finding indicates that some small children are constantly alert in order to tackle challenges and difficulties when they are in daycare. Perhaps they are spending too much time on their own without support from grown-ups they feel secure with.

Small children need attentive and available adults around them that can help them when they need it. This is not always the practice during busy days in a daycare institution, not in Norway either. Some small children are assumed to be more exposed for experiencing daycare as stressful, because they for instance have a more vulnerable temperament. It is also assumed that a large number of activities controlled by grown-ups and plenty of time spent in a big group can cause higher stress levels in small children.

Negative stress over time can cause a weakened immune system and reduced memory, capability to regulate own behaviour and handle future stress situations. At present, there is not enough knowledge to say if stress caused in child care institutions has these effects.

This autumn we start collecting data for the study “Small in daycare” (“Liten i barnehagen”), where around 400 parents from Trondheim and Oslo will be invited to participate with their children. We will be measuring the children’s levels of cortisol both in daycare and at home as part of the research. Further, we will observe the interaction between the children and the personnel to see if there is a connection between positive interplay and reduced stress levels in the children. We will also investigate factors such as physical buildings, the size of the group of children and number of children per grown-up.

The research project is collaboration between the Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental health and Child Welfare at NTNU and the Regional Center for Child and Adolescent Mental Health – Region East and South. In addition international researchers on child care will take part in the research.

Data about the participants has been collected already from pregnancy, a fact that makes the project unique, also on an international level. By controlling other factors that also may cause stress we can be sure that it actually is stress related to the child care institution we are examining. We can also investigate if some children are more vulnerable than others when it comes to kindergarten-related stress. So far, little research has been conducted on this topic internationally.

Our research project will show if the youngest children in daycare in Norway are less stressed than small children in other countries. Perhaps Norwegian daycare institutions are of such a quality that this is the case, but so far we do not know.


Badanes, L.S., Dmitrieva, J. & Watamura, S.E. (2012). Understanding cortisol reactivity across the day at child care: The potential buffering role of secure attachment to caregivers. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 156-165.

Bratterud, Å., Sandseter, E.B. & Seland, M. (2012). Barns trivsel og medvirkning i barnehagen. Trondheim: Barnevernets Utviklingssenter, Rapport 21/12.

Gunnar, M.R., Kryzer, E., van Ryzin, M.J. & Phillips, D.A. (2010). The rise in cortisol in family day care: Associations with aspects of care quality, child behavior, and child sex. Child Development, 81, 853-870.

Phillips, D.A., Fox, N.A. & Gunnar, M.R. (2011). Same place, different experiences: Bringing individual differences to reserach in child care. Child Development Perspectives, 5, 44-49.

Sajaniemi, N., Suhonon, E., Kontu, E., Rantanen, P., Lindholm, H., Hyttinen, S. & Hirvonen, A. (2011). Children’s cortisolpatterns and the quality of early learning environment. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 19, 45-62.

Vermeer, H.J. & IJzendoorn, M.H. (2006). Children’s elevated cortisol levels at daycare: A review and meta-analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 390-401.

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