Parents value and seek quality child care but overestimate the care their child receives, at odds with how experts rate child care in the United States.

The Issue

Early childhood is a critical time for children’s brains and bodies to develop in a healthy way and child care plays an important role in that. Yet, according to a new poll, parents face challenges in accessing quality, affordable child care. Even more troublesome, a gap exists between what parents and experts believe is the quality of child care provided.

Key Findings

  • Quality—Most parents (59%) rate the quality of their child’s care as excellent, even though experts say the majority of child care in the United States is not high quality, with only 10 percent very high quality.

  • Cost and convenience—Cost is a common challenge for parents to find care (27% said it was) and even after they do find it, it is a financial burden for many (31%). Finding backup care for a sick child challenges working parents who report that they miss work (75%), loose pay (12%), or have negative repercussions from their employer (10%).

  • Limited options—For many parents, child care options are limited (67%) but more so for families with not strong finances (79%) than those with strong ones (63%).

  • Lasting effects—Most parents feel child care positively impacts their child’s long-term wellbeing (86%) and job success in later life (52%). Mothers say it has a positive effect on their wellbeing (62%) and their relationship with their child (58%).


National standards for rating child care could provide better information for parents on the quality of child care. That, along with more affordable, high-quality child care options would benefit all U.S. children and their families.

About the Study

The poll was developed by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. Telephone interviews were conducted in the summer of 2016.

Experts address issues with perception of child care quality

On October 18, 2016, an online Forum at Harvard School of Public Health brought together a panel of experts to discuss parents’ priorities and perceptions about their children’s care and how they square up against expert assessments of child care quality. 

Watch the webcast