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If you’re looking for childcare, you’re not alone: the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies estimates that 11 million children under five spend an average of 36 hours a week in some kind of childcare. It can be good for a child’s development to experience different caretakers and to interact with other children. It can also benefit parents, not only to participate in the workforce but to spend time away from their children.
On the other hand, childcare is pricey, both financially and emotionally. It’s definitely not an expense to skimp on (bargain-basement sitters are generally a bad idea). Your child’s well-being is a priority, and the first five years are critical for development. Plus, if you’re not happy with the attention your child is getting, your mind definitely won’t be on your job.
Childcare is a tough topic, complete with conflicting answers and opinions depending on your individual situation. As always though, knowledge is power, so this article aims to arm you with information on your options.
The pros to having a nanny: her schedule will work around yours (vs. trying to schedule around a childcare facility or a family member) and your child will get plenty of one-on-one attention. The cons: your child won’t be consistently interacting with other kids.
Another downside to hiring a nanny is the price. After all, there’s a reason a nanny is the “must have” accessory for every celebrity! There is a way to lower that price tag though: nanny share. In this situation, the nanny cares for the children of two or more families at once. There’s some negotiation involved: you and your co-nanny families will need to have similar views on napping, discipline and acceptable activities (it’s not going to work if one kid gets to watch Sesame Street while another isn’t allowed to watch TV). You’ll also have to agree on a schedule and location.
If this sounds like a workable option for you, check out the web for nanny services that can match you with a caregiver. Or talk to other parents and see if they have someone they like who would take on your child as well. You can also see if your neighborhood has an online group (a Yahoo group, for instance) that might know of a nanny looking for work, or check with your local school, church and pediatrician’s office to see if they can refer anyone. However you find your nanny, make sure to do a background check! Most online services offer background checks for a small fee. You should also write up a contract that covers the specifics, like salary vs. hourly compensation, vacation and sick policies, use of cell phone and computer while watching the child(ren), health care, and paid holidays. You can find sample nanny contractsby just googling “nanny contract samples”.
Au pairs are domestic help from foreign countries. Through a government program, young people (typically late teens to mid-20s) come to the States to live and study for a few years. In exchange for room, board and a smallish allowance, you’ve got up to 45 hours of childcare a week. Bonus: your child is bound to learn quite a bit of a foreign language.
Daycare centers are another reliable bet. Their policies are usually spelled out ahead of time, so there aren’t a lot of surprises (or flexibility). You’ll be given strict drop-off and pick-up times (and usually be charged a fee if you’re late), but you also won’t have to scramble if a teacher is sick—they’ll have back up. Downside: the chaos of getting yourself and your child ready in the morning on a time deadline.
Another pro about daycare centers is the opportunity to socialize with other kids. While screaming matches over tow trucks are never fun, they’re a necessary lesson in learning to share.
When you’re choosing a daycare, make sure it’s licensed. Check up on teacher-to-child ratios. Ask to spend some time observing the facility: you’ll want to make sure it’s clean, safe and that you like the way caregivers treat the children.
Home daycare is similar to a daycare center but it (surprise!) takes place in a private home. Also called family daycare, home daycares are usually run by moms who are staying home to take care of their own kids but want to make an income so they open their doors to other children as well. There are 280,000 regulated home daycares in the U.S. That’s three times the number of licensed daycare centers.
If you find good family daycare, you’re in great shape. The homey, intimate atmosphere can be a nice bridge for your child between your own home and the “real world.” But do your research. The licensing for family daycare is less strict than daycare centers and the providers are less likely to have backgrounds in child development. Definitely investigate before you drop off your precious cargo. The National Association for Family Child Care has an accredited provider search that can help.
Depending on your profession, many employers allow flexible hours or occasional days spent working from home. The plus here is that you’re making an income and not spending all of it on childcare. The down side is that the childcare provider is you—which can be a little tricky. If your little one is an angel who can entertain herself quietly, you’re in luck. If not, you might want to consider one of these options:
If your hours are 7am to 3pm and your spouse works nights, perfect! You can trade off childcare. Unfortunately, you won’t get much time together, so make sure to carve out weekend family time.
If telecommuting is an option, consider hiring a babysitter for daytime help. Put a help-wanted sign up at your local college and high school. If there are any child psychology or child development classes, contact the professor to see if he or she can recommend a student for childcare. If you can schedule calls and meetings in advance, have your sitter show up during those particular hours. Your child will get a trip to the park while you’ll get some quiet time.
Another option is the well-timed play date. If you know a local stay-at-home parent, see if you can drop off your child occasionally when you have a deadline or an important call. In exchange, you can take their children while the parents go on date nights. Win win!
If you live near a family member, celebrate! This is usually the most inexpensive childcare around. Grandparents can’t wait to get their hands on their chubby little grandkids, and you know exactly what kind of attention your kids will receive.
Of course, this situation could turn out to be too good to be true. If your relatives are older, they may have trouble keeping up with babies or new walkers. And if you disagree on any fundamentals of child development, it can strain your relationship.
So while relative care is often cheap or even free, whether or not it’s the best choice will depend on your relatives.
Before you decide on childcare, figure out your household income—does it make sense for both you and your spouse to work? After all, sometimes the cost of childcare is more than your salary.
If you do decide to seek regular childcare, the answer to your needs will vary. But one thing is certain: you want the best care you can get for your child, at a price you can afford.
Do your research and observe different caregivers before making your decision. And remember, it’s not set in stone. If your choice isn’t working out, try another one. You’ll eventually find a solution that works for you, your budget and your child.
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