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Research: Kids no more stressed at daycare than at home

Researchers tracked toddlers' stress levels at home and at daycare by gauging cortisol levels in saliva samples.

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Image: Henrietta Lehtinen / Yle

There is little difference in the level of stress that kids experience, regardless of whether they are cared for at home or in public daycares, according to new research at the University of Turku.

The institution's FinnBrain study found that the nature of care provided for kids had no real impact on their daily cortisol levels. Cortisol is often known as the stress hormone because of its connection to the stress response.

Researchers said they detected some variations in isolated readings, however. The research also suggested that there was no link between the size of daycare groups and children’s cortisol levels.

The study tracked children under the age of three and relied on a series of saliva samples to measure cortisol levels both at home and at daycare.

According to a statement from the university, toddlers who received care at daycare had slightly higher cortisol levels during the afternoon, compared to when the same children were at home at the same time of day.

"This is partly explained by an afternoon nap, because the samples were taken during the afternoon after nap time and cortisol levels are a bit higher immediately after waking up. However naps do not completely explain [cortisol] levels and it may be that for some children, afternoons at daycare may be more of a strain than at home," FinnBrain researcher and doctoral student Katja Tervahartiala said in the statement.

Little insight into daycare stress

Group comparisons indicated that overall, children cared for at home had slightly higher cortisol levels than kids in daycare groups. Researchers attributed this to the fact that cortisol levels fluctuated more among children in home care and average differences in cortisol levels among children were greater than among kids in daycare groups.

So far there has been little research into children’s stress levels in daycare environments, neither has previous research had a reference group of children receiving home care.

The FinnBrain daycare research included more than 200 children and over 30 daycares in Turku and nearby municipalities. The Turku University FinnBrain birth cohort study is examining the impact of environment and heredity on children’s development. It involves more than 4,000 families and follows children from pregnancy into adulthood.

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