In that great juggle of work and parenthood, nothing can cause more stress – or more relief – than your childcare arrangements. But with so many options out there, how’s a parent to find a system that will help rather than hurt? Here we give the skinny on the top five childcare options so you can decide what’s right for you.
1. Day care center
These are care facilities that must be licensed and meet a variety of government regulations and safety standards; they also typically have professional staff and accept infants as young as six weeks old.
COST: The average cost of full-time childcare for an infant in Utah is $6,800. The price tag doesn’t drop much as the child gets older.
PROS: Fully staffed during regular hours. Depending on the program, centers boast curriculums that claim to do everything from fostering self-confidence to developing motor and social skills to bolstering intellectual development. Infants and toddlers meet other children their age.
CONS: The cost is high. According to a recent Child Care Aware of America report, in most states it costs more to send an infant to a day care center than it does to send a teenager to public college. And while there may be price breaks for siblings, the fee is essentially the same for each child in a single family.
If you work odd hours or night shifts, these centers are probably your least flexible option in terms of when your child gets care.
2. Family day care/home center
The US Census found that 1.6 million children under age five are cared for by a non-relative in that person’s home; the majority of these are in official “family day cares,” which in most states have to meet some regulations. (There are also more than 700,000 children in more informal arrangements, ranging from babysitting coops to a neighbor watching the local kids.) A home-based setup usually involves a provider, and possibly his or her employees, caring for a small group of children of different ages.
COST: Family childcare for infants in Utah averages $5,000.
PROS: Parents who love their family day care programs say they are happy for their children to be in a home setting where they can play with older and younger kids – something that some studies show has developmental benefits. They also say they feel more comfortable having a consistent, primary provider know and care for their child.
CONS: Child advocacy groups warn that home-based care is far less regulated than day care centers; many states do not require a family day care to be licensed until it is caring for a certain number of children. It can be difficult without a lot of legwork for parents to learn about a provider’s safety record and background. Home-based care, depending on the provider, can also be less reliable than a center, which has backups, say, for sick employees.
Once thought of as employees for the rich, nannies are increasingly a child care option for a wider range of families who need flexible childcare hours or who feel more comfortable with a dedicated caregiver. A nanny is essentially a professional babysitter – anyone from an undocumented worker to a highly trained and salaried professional – who works for your family as a sort of surrogate parent, coming to your home, taking your child on outings (or whatever makes you comfortable), feeding her your food, etc.
COST: There is no established standard. A scan of web forums and sites such as the Nanny Network shows $10 to $20 an hour is typical, depending on geography, number of kids and the caregiver’s experience. And then there are the “elite” nannies, the subject of a New York Times article earlier this year, who make upward of $180,000 a year, plus housing.
PROS: In best cases, a nanny develops a deep, loving bond with your child, all within the bounds of your parenting values. Because you are working with only one other individual, you may have the ability with a nanny to make arrangements that fit with odd work hours, vacation schedules, even date nights. The best nannies offer your child consistent care-giving over the years. Some nannies can provide light household work on top of child care duties. But not always – and depending on the nanny, you may find yourself on the receiving end of those flexibility requests. Think: sick days.
CONS: Because most nanny childcare arrangements are made informally (although there are also a number of nanny placement service agencies), parents need to take responsibility themselves for screening, background checking, and references. A nanny who does not make your child happy – or who annoys you – can cause a tense household situation. Nannies can quit at a moment’s notice, which can be devastating for a young child, not to mention a working parent’s job.
4. Au pair
The US Census estimates that 736,000 children are cared for in their own homes by a non-relative. While nannies make up the bulk of these caregivers, the US State Department administers education/work visas for 28,000 au pairs, or caregivers from foreign countries who work for and live with American host families. Au pairs are between the ages of 18 and 26 and must take six units of accredited college courses in the US. They stay for up to two years and are supposed to be treated as a family member – albeit a family member that takes care of your kids for up to 45 hours a week.
COST: $12,000 to $17,000 per year, including agency fees for background checks, training, a local counselor for you and the au pair, as well as a weekly cash stipend that families pay directly to the au pair.
PROS: Families who use au pairs say schedule flexibility is key – the au pair is available to take care of children at odd hours. Bring on date night! The au pair can drive older children to school, help with homework, and even coach toddlers into becoming bilingual. Families that take the cultural exchange nature of the program seriously can create lifelong global friendships. The agency pre-screens all candidates, and there is an endless supply of applicants that parents can interview by phone or Skype until a fit feels good; the agency charges nothing additional if you fire your au pair and want a new one. Also, price is the same no matter how many children get care.
CONS: You have to provide a private room for the au pair, and he or she will be a full-time resident in your home for a year. You only get to speak by phone or Skype with your au pair before she (or he) arrives at your home, suitcases in hand. Though there are financial incentives to prevent it, an au pair can quit at any time.
The US Census Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) shows there are almost twice as many children aged five and younger cared for by relatives than by day care centers and nursery schools combined. It found that some 4.6 million children under age five have regular childcare arrangements with a grandparent. (Another 7 million get care from siblings or other relatives, or employed parents who trade off while the other works.) And half of these grandparents take care of their grandchildren for more than 12 hours a week, the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies found in a 2008 study.
COST: Generally free. (Only 19 percent of families with children age six and younger who receive grandparent care pay for it, according to a research brief by the organization Child Trends.)
PROS: Who better than Grandma to love your little one almost as much as you?
CONS: Are your child’s grandparents physically up to the task? Chasing a toddler is hard; it’s important for everyone involved to be realistic about what grandparents can and can’t do. Are they willing to embrace your childcare priorities and safety standards, or will discussions about car seat usage, say, cause battles – or fall on deaf ears? Will having grandparents care for your children cause tension in the family?
For more information about childcare please don’t forget to visit our Care About Childcare website www.careaboutchildcare.utah.gov.
article adapted from CSM