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Child Care Supports Academic Achievement and Physical Health

August 10, 2023

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A study published in March of 2023, examines the impact of child care on the dietary quality of young children, as well as portrays the need for a more inclusive definition of ‘child care.’ Access to high-quality care supports the academic and social development of your children and is important for all families to reduce socioeconomic disparities. 

Children from low-income families who participate in high-quality early child care and education (ECE) programs have better academic achievement and higher earnings in adulthood compared with children from similar backgrounds who did not participate in formal child care arrangements. 

Research suggesting child care also may support children’s physical health. 

  • Children in ECE consumed more fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy, and lower amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages per meal compared with other settings 
  • Meals were also higher in key nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D, potassium, riboflavin, and vitamin A. 
  • Healthy Eating Index scores in the Family Child Care Homes (FCCH) were higher than in children’s own homes, indicating a closer alignment with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Efforts to Improve Dietary Quality During Early Childhood Will Support Early Cognitive Development and Health Benefits  

Organizations and policy makers worldwide recognize the importance of nutrition to early brain growth and cognitive development. However, data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey suggests that most US infants, toddlers, and preschoolers do not consume an optimal quality diet. This is especially concerning for the 10.7 million US children who experience food insecurity each year. Therefore, supporting good nutrition in ECE could have an important impact for vulnerable children. 

Child Care Settings Offer an Opportunity for Improving Children’s Dietary Quality  

More than three-fourths of children in the US attend out-of-home child care before starting formal education. Approximately half of US children that are younger than preschool age with employed mothers attend child care for at least 35 hours per week. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that children who attend child care full time may require 50-60% of their daily nutrients to be provided in this setting. As a result, child care centers have become the main learning environment for young children’s food habits. 

However, research shows that meals and snacks served in child care settings may not meet the nutritional guidelines and public health intervention may improve the nutrition and dietary quality of young children. 

Another study found that child care provided meals were associated with household food security, excellent/good child health, and lower odds of hospital admission among young children from families with low incomes who receive child care subsidy. Thus, policies that focus on strengthening and expanding access to nutrition in child-care settings, of which CACFP is the primary national program, are important for promoting positive outcomes for toddlers in child care.  

Importance of an Inclusive Child Care Definition  

There is a current disparity in research on center-based child care and non-center-based child care, with very little research on FCCHs. FCCHs must be considered in program designed to improve the quality of care – which may increase the likelihood that families choose FCCH over center-based options. Because FCCH care is less expensive than center-based ECE care, the same federal subsidies could be used to reach more of the children in under-resourced communities. For example, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program spent an average of $584 per month for each child participating in centers, compared with $507 per month for each child in FCCHs. Of the families served by the CCDBG in 2019, 40% were below the Federal Poverty Level, indicating this program is used by children most at risk of food insecurity and of developing diet-related health disparities. 

FCCHs are not as well integrated into government policy, as child care centers tend to be the most heavily regulated form of early childcare. There are less and more general State-level regulations for FCCHs. Almost no regulations exist for FFN (Family, Friend, Neighbor) care, leaving this setting entirely neglected from quality improvement efforts. 


FCCHs and FFN care are an important component of the ECE landscape, and the children receiving care in these settings have as much of a need for health improvement efforts as those receiving care from an ECE center. FCCHs and FFN care settings must be more fairly included in: 

  • efforts to support early childhood nutrition,  
  • research seeking to understand how to improve nutrition interventions, and  
  • government policies designed to protect children. 


For more information, read the full paper: The Need for a More Inclusive Definition of ‘Child care’ in Efforts Aimed at Improving the Dietary Quality of Young Children.