Research into stress in children in daycare: ‘More attention to the adjustment period’

Several empirical studies have shown that, on average, children experience more stress in day care than at home. Specific research on babies, the period around the start of childcare and the perception of parents was sparse. Therefore, Sanne de Vet did PhD research on this topic.

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Going to day care can be quite exciting for both children and their parents. It is often the first moment they are not together for a long time. Day care is also different from home: there are other people present and often more incentives. Parents also experience stress when taking their children with them. ‘It is important that educational staff are aware of this and engage in dialogue with the parents,’ says Sanne de Vet.


The meta-analysis from Sanne de Vets’ PhD research shows that children produce higher cortisol levels – i.e. more stress – in the afternoon when they are in day care than when they are at home. This difference was not found for morning cortisol levels. In addition, there was an average decrease in cortisol during the day in the home, while cortisol levels in childcare increased on average during the day. Possible general explanations for more stress in daycare than at home include parental separation and overstimulation.

Stress in babies

In general, the babies in the study also experienced more stress in day care than at home, but the level of stress is very variable. Babies who scored higher on negative emotionality were more likely to show declining cortisol levels throughout the day. It is possible that educational staff anticipate stress in babies who are more irritable, especially around the start, so that these babies can subsequently regulate their stress more easily.

Stress among parents and children during reopening after lockdown

Around a third of the 694 parents and children surveyed were found to experience stress around the child’s return to daycare after the corona lockdown. Parents reported more stress in the following children: children with more anxious parents, younger children, children who attended daycare fewer hours per week after the closure, children who experienced less stress during the closure, and children from single-parent families. Transition periods in daycare appear to be independent periods with unique predictors of stress.


The researchers have found some starting points to make it easier for young children and their parents to start caregiving. ‘They can do that by, for example, letting children get used to shorter periods more often.’ Another piece of advice is to pay extra attention to children during potentially stressful times during the day in the nursery. ‘Younger children in particular will benefit from extra attention.’

It also seems useful to discuss routines at home and the parents’ feelings towards their child’s start before the start of (small) children in day care with parents. This can be done, for example, through a comprehensive intake and possibly with the help of video images or a questionnaire. This can help to (partially) remove any fear and worry on the part of the parents and ensure a more pleasant start for both parents and child. In practice, it is important that more time and attention is given to young children’s adjustment period in daycare and certainly more guidance for their parents.

You may have already known this from your experience as a babysitter, but it is now also confirmed by research. It is better to walk around with a baby before putting him or her to bed. The movement helps babies relax. This method is most effective for crying babies >>

Sources: Early journal, Leiden University

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