How Chicagoland Families Can Navigate the Child Care Crisis

Finding good child care can be challenging. Read on for tips from experts and other parents on how to navigate the child care crises.

A soon-to-be mother’s first call after a positive pregnancy test might not be to her family or friends – it might be to a daycare to get her unborn child on a waiting list. 

Finding child care is so hard and I was so naive about how early you have to start looking,” Rachel Wallner, a Chicago mom of two, says. “I started looking in March, and my baby was due in July, and by the time he was four months old and I needed care, there was still nothing.” 

Wallner’s experience is maddeningly common. For parents with a ticking clock for returning to work and without family help, finding care for their baby is proving to be incredibly challenging. 

Dan Harris, executive director of the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, says that whether the childcare landscape is truly in “crises” is different for each family individually. 

But he does admit that finding care in some cases–like daycares for infants–can be nearly impossible. “I would tell you that if you’re a parent of a newborn and looking for a highly rated child care center, then you should have gotten on a waiting list before you conceived,” Harris says. 

Other experts agree that while some families might have the funds to pay for the most expensive care or have family members willing to care for their young children, those without resources can be put in a tough situation.

“If you’re a parent today or if you are soon to be a parent today and you are facing the reality of trying to find and afford quality care you would probably say you feel a little bit in crisis,” says Sarah Rittling, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an organization that works on early learning and child care programs at the federal level.

What are parents dealing with when it comes to childcare? 

Child Care Crisis Chicago

Child Care Crisis Chicago

Internal data from Bank of America released in October 2023 indicates that the average child care payment per household in the United States has risen over 30% since 2019 with families making between $100,000-$250,000 seeing the biggest increase.
“The cheapest that I found for care was $2,300 a month, which is far more than our mortgage,” says Wallner, who lives in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago. “And a lot of places in our area were so full they wouldn’t even accept an application.” 

In the counties that make up Chicagoland, the average estimated cost of care for an infant at a center was $16,934 in 2023, according to the National Database of Childcare Prices run by the U.S. Department of Labor. For families, that meant paying around 15% of their annual income on care for their baby. 

For child care to be considered “affordable,” the Department of Health and Human Services says it shouldn’t cost more than 7% of a family’s income. 

This massive cost can impact a family in equally massive ways. It can affect where families ultimately decide to raise children, with some parents prioritizing staying close to grandparents in order to avoid paying high daycare costs, while others choose cities with lower costs of living to offset the price of childcare. 

These costs can also force a parent to stay home and raise children. The same Bank of America internal report suggests that high childcare costs are driving parents out of the workforce, as there were fewer dual income households in 2023 than in 2019.

The difficulty of finding care doesn’t come down to just affordability. Parents and experts describe many issues, including accessibility, quality of care and more. There are also issues facing the providers: a struggle to find qualified workers and if they do, to pay them appropriately

Tips for families navigating child care

Photo credit: iStock/FatCamera

Start early 

“Look for what you need early,” Chicago mom Rachel Wallner says. “As soon as you know you’re pregnant–If you need that care, you need to start looking immediately.”

“That’s the number one thing that I wasn’t really aware of at first,” she adds. “You’re thinking about so many other things that the last thing on your mind is putting down a deposit on a daycare.” 

Mom Brenna Welch shares Wallner’s sentiment. “Give yourself a lot of time or be prepared to settle and compromise,” she says. 

Welch says she was lucky that her family’s in-home nanny decided to open her own play school nearby, making the transition from in-home care to a center more natural.

Don’t limit yourself to traditional care

Looking for solutions outside of traditional daycare can also be fruitful. In Wallner’s case, looking for care was demoralizing until her husband suggested they try Itsy Bitsy, the combination co-working space and daycare in their neighborhood.

“It’s been perfect for our needs, partially because I can work from home, so for people who can, it’s a terrific option,” she says. “You have access to a really nice coworking space, your own desk and there’s a nice ambience, like a typical office setting so you can mentally get into the space of work.”

Ask for recommendations

Another tip Wallner says helped in her child care search was not being afraid to ask for recommendations from other parents. 

“The conversations I’ve had with other moms have been very helpful,” she says. “Networking around who’s good, who to trust to come into your home…I had some good recommendations from friends who could put my mind at ease.”  

Don’t beat yourself up

Finding child care can be difficult and demoralizing. Sarah Rittling, a mom as well as the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, says don’t be afraid to open up and ask for help. 

It’s okay to talk about the struggles you are having, and to use your community to talk about that openly,” Rittling says. “What we saw in some focus groups is that moms are beating themselves about whether or not to go back to work.” 

“There are a lot of organizations out there, so find what’s available and tap into those,” she adds. “What you’ll see is that states and communities have gotten better at gap-filling and responding to constituents–you’re not alone.” 

Government responses to child care needs

Smart Start Illinois
Photo credit: iStock/hispanolistic

There is a bright side for families in Illinois. Child care providers in both states were able to weather the COVID-19 era better than other centers nationally. Federal and state funding allowed many centers to stay open, while in other parts of the country, centers shut down, making the search even more difficult today. 

“The support that individual states are committed to providing is making a difference,” Dan Harris says. “Some child care providers went out of business during the pandemic, but thanks to support from the childcare systems, we were able to keep the infrastructure intact.” 

Smart Start Illinois 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker continues to increase funding for Smart Start Illinois, with an overall goal of providing free universal Pre-K in the state by 2027. The program began with $250 million in funding for fiscal year 2024, and has already added 5,866 new preschool seats

Unified Early Childhood State Agency

Another major change for Illinois is the proposal for a new early childhood department which could house all state funded early childhood programs under one department. If that proposal passes, it would “better align the policies in those different programs to make the system easier to navigate,” says Harris. 

Child Care & Development Block Grant

President Biden’s executive actions were announced in April 2023. Since then, subsequent enhancements to the grant have included a February 2024 update that lowered co-payments for families, paid child care providers more fairly and streamlined enrollment processes.

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Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn
Amanda Rahn is a freelance journalist and copy editor. She is a graduate of Wayne State University’s journalism school and of the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University. Amanda is a lover of translated contemporary fiction, wines from Jura and her dog, Lottie.


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