High-quality child care for low-income children offset the risk of later depression
May 20, 2007 - 3:59:37 AM

Young adults from low-income families who were in full-time early educational child care from infancy to age 5 reported fewer symptoms of depression than their peers who were not in this type of care, according to a new report. The early educational intervention also appears to have protected the children to some extent against the negative effects of their home environments.

The report, from the FPG Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses data from the Abecedarian Project, a longitudinal study begun in 1972 in which 111 high-risk children were randomly assigned to early educational child care from infancy to age 5 or to a control group that received various other forms of child care. The study is published in the May/June 2007 issue of the journal Child Development.

Research has shown a relationship between poverty in early childhood and an increased risk for mental health problems in adulthood. A number of early intervention programs have been found to enhance the cognitive development and academic outcomes of children living in poverty, but less is known about the long-term effects of these programs on children's mental health.

In the Abecedarian Project, 98 percent of the children were black and all came from low-income families with demographic factors known to predict developmental delays or academic problems. As part of the study, developmental and demographic data were collected regularly during the early childhood years with follow-up assessments in adolescence and young adulthood.

The study followed up with 104 study participants when they were 21 and found that those who had participated in the child care program had fewer symptoms of depression than those who did not.

Early child care also moderated the effects of the children's home environments on subsequent feelings of depression. For children in the control group, the more negative the early home environment, the greater the likelihood of signs of depression.

The early intervention does not appear to have changed home environments, according to Frances A. Campbell, a senior scientist at FPG and one of the authors of the study. Rather, it buffered, or protected, the children from the adverse effects of less-optimal early home environments. This evidence, indicating that good early childhood experiences can make a positive difference in the mental health of individuals born into poverty, underscores the importance of investing in high-quality early childhood experiences for poor children.

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