Early Inadequate Childcare is Associated with Later Poor Maternal Health, Study Finds

March 26, 2024

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WASHINGTON, DC (March 26, 2024)— Does stress from childcare challenges affect parents’ health? In a study selected as the Editor’s Choice in the latest issue of Women’s Health Issues, researchers surveyed mothers of young children regarding their childcare arrangements and followed up six years later to ask about their health. They found that childcare precarity was associated with higher odds of maternal depression, and inadequate childcare was associated with higher odds of poor overall maternal health.

Women’s Health Issues is the official journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, which is based at the Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.

Carol Duh-Leong, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and colleagues used data from the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing study, which recruited from 20 large U.S. cities and included a large proportion of socioeconomically disadvantaged participants. Dr. Duh-Leong and her co-authors used data collected when children were ages 3 and 9. Surveys administered to parents whose children were in regular childcare at age 3 asked about three aspects of childcare precarity: how often parents had to make special arrangements for care that fell through, how often they missed work or school because childcare arrangements fell through, and whether they had to quit a job or training because of childcare problems. The surveys also asked whether parents could count on someone to help with emergency childcare. When the children were age 9, surveys asked parents to rate their overall health and measured symptoms of depression and stress.  

The authors analyzed data from mothers who completed both surveys and found that all three measures of childcare precarity when children were age 3 were associated with higher odds of maternal depression when the children were age 9. They also found that mothers who reported inadequate childcare that caused them to quit a job, school, or training activity had higher odds of having poor or fair (vs. good, very good, or excellent) health at the follow-up survey. Conversely, they found that mothers who reported having emergency childcare support had lower odds of depression, parenting stress, and poor/fair overall health.

“For public policy stakeholders looking to ameliorate structural inequities and bolster maternal economic opportunity, this work supports collaboratives such as the New York City Economic Development Corporation's Childcare Innovation Lab, which links city economic well-being to high quality, affordable, early childcare access,” the authors write. They also suggest that future studies test the effects on maternal health and wellbeing of interventions such as flexible parental leave for the first few years after childbirth, provision of employer-sponsored onsite childcare, and universal access to prekindergarten.

“As elected officials consider how much funding to devote to childcare, studies like this one provide important information,” said Karen McDonnell, Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health Issues and associate professor of prevention and community health at Milken Institute SPH. “These findings suggest investing in childcare can translate to better health for parents and families years into the future.”

Early Childcare Precarity and Subsequent Maternal Health” has been published in the March/April 2024 issue of Women’s Health Issues.