You’re a new parent. You want childcare that’s (a) nurturing, (b) stimulating and (c) doesn’t require taking out a second mortgage. Where, and when, to begin your search?
There are two basic approaches: in-home and out-of-home care. And there are lots of factors to consider. Start with this overview of the options, costs and recommended timing for each type of care from The Working Gal’s Guide to Babyville.
This is care provided in your home vs. someone else’s. The upsides? Individual attention, fewer germs from other kids and convenience. Your child gets to nap in his own crib and you get to leave each morning without schlepping your bundle of joy.
The downsides? High hourly costs and paperwork. Plus, a sick sitter can leave you in the lurch and there’s less opportunity for your child to socialize.
If you want in-home care, you can look into referral agencies in advance, but you won’t be able to interview candidates until a month or two before returning to work. Nannies and babysitters available for interviews generally want to start immediately.
Interested? Here are your in-home options:
What do you call someone who comes to your home and cares for your child while you’re at work? You have two choices: babysitter or nanny. What’s the difference? Semantics, mainly.
While referral agencies may argue a "nanny" has more of a career-orientation to her childcare role, plenty of women with sterling credentials and years of experience call themselves babysitters. Pick your favorite; either term is accurate.
Pros: Your child receives one-on-one care, and you don’t even have to get him dressed before scrambling out the door in the morning.
Cons: Around Chicago, you’ll pay $8 to $15 an hour for an experienced daytime babysitter. And managing the legally required paperwork and taxes can feel like you’re running a small business.
Full-time cost: Need childcare 45 hours a week? That’s $1,440 to $2,700 monthly, including paid vacation and potentially a health insurance subsidy and placement fee.
Know a nearby family with compatible childcare needs? Share a sitter by bringing the children together and rotating houses every other week.
Pros: You split the cost, and the kids enjoy built-in socialization in a comfy, familiar environment. To really save, coordinate a three-way share-care arrangement.
Cons: If the other family’s needs ever change (mom decides to quit, they move to Peoria), you’re forced to find another family pronto or cover the sitter costs yourself.
Full-time cost: Expect to pay about $720 to $1,350 a month, including paid vacation and potentially a health insurance subsidy and placement fee.
If you have a family member willing and able to care for your child, take advantage. In fact, relatives are the most popular childcare providers in the United States.
Pros: Free, loving, dependable help is like winning the childcare lottery. Don’t ask why you were the chosen one; just accept the prize and be grateful.
Cons: If you’re not thrilled with your mother-in-law’s approach to naptimes or your aunt’s love affair with daytime TV, you’re in a tough spot. She’s caring for your child and saving you massive amounts of money. You owe her. Don’t let your frustrations create unspoken tension. Discuss your parenting philosophy in advance and keep up an honest, open dialogue.
Cost: Relatives typically don’t charge, but you could offer payment.
Live-in nanny/au pair
Yes, we’re talking about someone living in your house, willing to help with diaper changes and laundry at a moment’s notice. Nice. Very nice. Especially if both parents work long hours with unpredictable schedules and you have space at home for another person.
Pros: By offering room and board, you may save on salary. Live-in nannies generally pitch in on serious housework as well, and international au pairs can introduce another culture and language.
Cons: You sacrifice privacy for convenience. And if you go the au pair route, be thorough in interviews and communicating expectations. While weekly hours are agreed to in advance, a 19-year-old visiting the United States for a year may be more excited about seeing the sights than pitching in as much as you hoped at home.
Cost: Expect to offer room, board, a negotiable monthly stipend, paid vacation and possibly a health insurance subsidy and placement fee.
There’s a reason daycare is so popular: It starts with a dollar sign and ends with a number that’s a lot smaller than in-home care. Plus, your child gets to learn about sharing even before siblings hit the scene.
The downsides? Schlepping your child out the door is required, and we all know what that entails. Then there’s the sick factor. (Picture 3-year-old Zach coughing into his hand and then innocently tickling your baby on the cheek. Enough said.)
Daycare hours are limited, which can be tricky on those evenings when your boss needs you to stay late. In fact, some centers charge by the minute if kids aren’t picked up by closing time. And if your daycare provider’s staff is always leaving, you should too. Consistent adult relationships give babies the confidence to explore the world.
Unlike hiring a babysitter, which you do at the last minute, if you want a daycare center, call now. Popular daycare providers often have waiting lists months long. Even if you’re debating your options, it doesn’t hurt to save a spot in advance.
Considering this approach? There are three options: daycare centers, daycare homes and on-site, employer-supported daycare.
These designated kid-care spaces are located in church basements, stand-alone facilities with ample outdoor space and everything in between. Some have 20 children; some have 200.
Look for one that’s licensed and accredited. Caregivers should be trained in early childhood education and staff turnover should be low. There should be at least one adult for every four kids.
Assuming these basic criteria are met, go with your gut. Try to find an environment that feels safe, bright, stimulating and comfortable. Talk to all the caregivers and make sure you have a personality match.
Pros: Daycare centers tend to be more affordable and less likely to leave you stranded than a babysitter, and socialization is built in.
Cons: You typically get what you pay for in the world of daycare; unlicensed providers have lower rates but generally don’t offer the same quality of care or safety.
Full-time cost: Around Chicago, the average monthly cost for infants in daycare centers is $820, according to Child Care Aware, a program of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.
Someone sets aside a portion of her home—often a lower level or playroom space—for daytime babysitting. There are also lots of options here, from a stay-at-home mom watching two or three extra kids to a family who’s running a long-term childcare business out of the basement and backyard.
Pros: Compared to centers, home-based care tends to be less expensive and have fewer children, more flexible drop-off and pick-up times and a homier atmosphere. (It is an actual home, after all—a homey atmosphere sort of comes with the territory.)
Cons: Some home-based caregivers don’t have the same level of training as those in daycare centers. And some parents prefer the daycare environment vs. a home. If you’re interested, check out a few in your area.
Full-time cost: Around Chicago, the average monthly cost for infants in home-based daycare is $565, according to Child Care Aware.
On site daycare
If your employer offers on-site daycare, visit the facility and make the call.
Pros: This can be a great arrangement, allowing you to spend more time with your child during your commute and lunch break.
Cons: Waiting lists tend to be long, and when your child is suffering severe bouts of separation anxiety, morning drop-off can be a stressful way to start your workday.
Cost: Facilities and costs vary by company; talk to your employer for specifics.
Paige Hobey is a writer and mother of two living in Chicago. Her new book, The Working Gal’s Guide to Babyville, is available in bookstores nationwide this month.