The Day Care Dilemma

by Wendy Burt

With more women working outside the home than ever before, child care has become one of the most taxing questions facing today's families. From au pairs to day cares, neighbors to preschool, the choices are often overwhelming for parents already coping with career, financial and marital pressures.

The following guidelines are designed to help you make an informed decision on care for your child. It is important to remember, however, that no decision ever has to be final. Be open to modifications as your needs, and those of your child, may change over time.

Evaluating Your Needs

Before you begin your search for child care, you need to know what to look for. Evaluate and prioritize your needs based on the following three criteria:
  1. Your Child(ren)'s needs. If you have more than one child, is it important that they are in the same program? If so, this may significantly cut down your options, especially if they're ages are greatly varied. You'll also need to take into account the age of your children, as some providers have age caps.

    Do your children have an special physical needs, such as dietary requirements or wheelchair accessibility?

    You will also need to evaluate your children's developmental levels in order to seek an appropriate program to enhance their learning. Do your children have special developmental or educational needs - ie. for dyslexia or attention deficit disorder? If your children are exceptionally gifted, what type of program will keep them mentally stimulated and challenged?

  2. Your schedule. "No problem. I'm a nine-to-fiver." Yeah right. Remember that time last month where you had to go in at 6:00am four days in a row? Or that time last week where you got stuck in that meeting till 8:00pm? And what about those power dinners, company functions and end-of-the-month weekends when you're trying to get those papers ready for that big account? You may be scheduled to work nine to five, but you're nowhere near forty hours.

    It's important to be realistic about your schedule. First, choose the basic hours that you'll need child care. Next, consider the location of the facility. How close is it to your home? To your work? Sure, something halfway between work and home sounds good, but if your partner works in the opposite direction from you, it may be better to have something close to your house if you're not the only one dropping off or picking up the kids.

    You'll also need to consider the facility's extended hours in case you and/or your partner get stuck at work. (Or just want a night on the town!) If the facility closes at 6:00pm and you get stuck in traffic, do you have a back up plan? The last thing you want to deal with is angry provider who's been waiting with your kids for two hours AFTER closing.

  3. Your budget. This may seem obvious, but there's more than just the an hourly or weekly fee involved. You'll need to include in your considerations; gas, lunches and snacks for your children (if not included in the fees), whether you get income tax credits, charges if you pick up your children late, additional fees for nights, weekends and holidays, application fees and deposits and penalties (if any) for removing your children from the facility before the contracts run out.

    Remember, that like many things in life, you get what you pay for. A less expensive program or provider may be cheaper for a reason. You'll need to ask yourself if you're willing to pay more for a better provider to child ratio, more flexible hours, a better location and a more intensive learning/activities program.


There are three basic types of care for your children; in-home, family day care and center care. Although all three have their advantages and disadvantages, you'll probably find that one suits your needs better than the others, at least for now.

  1. In-home care. This category typically includes anyone watching children in your home - from you mother or your teenage neighbor to nannies and au pairs. Unlike family or center care, in-home providers do not need to be licensed through the state.

    ADVANTAGES: Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that your children will be accustomed to the environment. They will also receive more individual attention, (assuming your provider isn't watching TV all day.) You won't have to worry about transportation, unless of course you have to pick up and drop off your provider. Au pairs, for example, are often exchange students, willing to care for your children in exchange for room and board and a small fee. Individuals may also be more flexible, working on weekends and holidays or arriving early and staying late when needed.

    DISADVANTAGES: The idea of individual attention can also work against your children, robbing them of important interaction with other children. They may also miss out on more structured physical and academic programs provided by many center care facilities. In-home care is sometimes more costly than other types of care, especially if your provider falls ill or fails to show up, leaving you scrambling to find care and missing valuable time at work.

  2. Family day care. This category typically includes an adult watching children in his or her own home. Family care providers must be licensed through the state and generally can accommodate no more than 10 or 12 children by law.

    ADVANTAGES: Like in-home care, your children may be more comfortable in a home setting, even if it's not their own. Because the provider takes care of children in their own home, they may be more flexible about drop-off and pick-up times and the cost may be quite a bit lower than in-home care. Unlike in-home care, however, your children will usually have interaction with other children their age.

    DISADVANTAGES: Interaction means taking the good with the bad. There's a chance that your children will pick up those cold germs that have been hibernating in their playmates. This, in turn, can lead you to another missed day of work, as many family day cares request that sick children not be brought in to the facility.

  3. Center care. This category typically includes non-home state-licensed facilities. Most centers provide structured academic programs, dividing the children up into several age categories for more age-specific care and activities.

    ADVANTAGES: With structured learning and play, your children get more than a babysitter. Like family day care, your children will get lots of interaction with other kids. With set hours, there's no chance of your provider calling in sick, leaving you stranded.

    DISADVANTAGES: Because centers tend to have a larger number of children than family day care, your children may get less individual attention from providers. Most centers have set hours, leaving you to work around their schedules, instead of the other way around.

No matter what type of child care you choose, be sure to evaluate your children's progress, health and happiness on a regular basis. If your children are old enough, talk to them about what happens when you're at work. Are they happy? Are they eager to tell you about their experiences, accomplishments and friendships? Do they appear to like their provider(s)? How do they react when you leave for the day? When you return for the day?

It's normal for children to need time to adjust to new surroundings, providers and other kids. If they're still having difficulty after the first few weeks, however, you may need to reconsider the type of care you've chosen. When in doubt, remember the golden rule: follow your instincts. If you think you've chosen the wrong facility or type of care, keep looking. When you find the right provider, you'll know it.

Also see: Nanny search checklist

Wendy Burt is a freelance writer based in Colorado.