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Stability in Early Childhood Development: The Role of Child Care

Photo of a child care worker with two toddlers on a playground.By Shannon Rudisill, Office of Child Care Director

The quality and stability of a child’s relationships are the most critical factors in whether a child thrives developmentally and goes on to have success in school. Nurturing, long-lasting relationships are important for all children—but especially for the youngest children—who are learning to form secure attachments that will be the foundation for future relationships. Outside of parents and close family members, a child care provider is often in the next circle of close relationships for children.

Child care is a two-generation program; it supports both children’s development and parents’ work. Whether parents are able to hold a job is directly related to whether they have child care. At the same time, eligibility for public child care subsidies is tied to parent’s employment—when a parent loses a job, that parent may also lose child care assistance. Research shows that clients receive child care assistance for a median period of only six to seven months.

The loss of child care and the loss of a job frequently happen at the same time, meaning that the parent, and more importantly the child, loses a key supportive relationship at a time when stress levels will be high. Not only do we miss the opportunity for a loving child care provider to buffer the child and family from stress, the loss of child care can exacerbate the effects of the job loss—more stress, greater loss of resources, and the loss of an anchor institution in the family’s life.

Creating greater stability in child care is a core goal for the Office of Child Care. OCC, part of the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, administers the Child Care and Development Fund, which provides child care fee assistance for 1.5 million children in low-income families each month. We’re focusing not only on improving the quality of care that our children can access, but also stability, which we often call continuity of care.

OCC is helping states and Tribes choose child care policies that lead to greater stability. We’ve issued policy guidance encouraging CCDF administrators to adopt policies that promote continuity.1 We then proposed new CCDF regulations that would mandate key changes, such as offering 12 months of child care eligibility, providing child care during job search, and offering more consumer education to parents so they can make a good child care choices and not need to change as often. We are also underscoring that child care is both a work support for parents and a child development program. The new rules would require states to take child development into account when authorizing subsidies, which will lead to quality, stable placements in which children can grow and learn.

This essay was originally published as a part of “Insights on Instability and Children’s Development,” a collection of short essays on the impact of instability on children’s lives published by the Urban Institute. To read other essays or more on the topic, visit

1 “Policies and Practices that Promote Continuity of Child Care Services and Enhance Subsidy Systems,” September 21, 2011,

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