Wanted: Loving Care

Need someone to look after your baby when you return to work? Here are the pros and cons of three common options.

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I just placed my belly, aka “Baby Phillips,” on a waiting list for the day-care center near my work. I can’t imagine having my baby in the outside world yet, let alone in day care, but for me—like the 59 percent of working mothers with children younger than 1 year—finding the right child care is crucial. Indeed, with about 6 million U.S. infants and toddlers being looked after by people other than their parents, quality care is in high demand. As a result, parents are wise to start the selection process early, even before the baby is born. Your choices boil down to three basic options: day-care centers, family day care and nannies. Before you make any decision, explore the different options and ask a lot of questions. But even more important, follow your instincts: If a situation feels right, chances are it is. Once you make your decision and your baby is in care, occasionally drop in for surprise visits to make sure your child is happy and thriving. And if you’re lucky enough to have a relative who is willing, able and responsible enough to care for your baby, tell her up front about your expectations regarding feeding, nap times, consoling a crying child, etc., so you don’t have the uncomfortable task of correcting such issues later on. To help you make this important decision, here’s a look at the different options, the cost ranges (for a low-income vs. high-income community), care standards and pros and cons.

Day-Care Center How it works: Care is provided in a nonresidential facility, usually for 13 or more children. Cost range: The average annual cost for a 1-year-old in Conway/Springdale, Ark., is $3,900, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. In Boston, it’s $13,000. What to look for: The preferred ratio of caregivers to children who are not yet mobile is 1-to-3, with group sizes no larger than six, according to Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that promotes healthy development in the early years. Beyond determining what the caregiver/child ratio is, you should ensure that your child has a primary caregiver, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three. “This builds a stable relationship for your child, and it’s helpful for you to have the same person to go to with questions,” she says. Ask about the experience, ongoing education and turnover rate of the day-care center’s caregivers; the level of parental involvement; and the center’s philosophy, including discipline and goals for the children. Finally, take a good look around—is the center clean and inviting? Do the caregivers talk to, and engage, the children?

Pros: A good center offers a range of stimulating activities. Caregivers are well supervised and the availability of care is reliable, so there is no need to have a backup plan to cover for an ill employee. Cons: Children tend to have more illnesses at an early age because of a higher exposure to germs brought into the day- care center by other children. The center’s schedule may not be very flexible, and the environment may be overstimulating for some babies.

Family Day Care How it works: Care is provided by a nonrelative in a private residence other than the child’s home. Cost range: The average annual cost for a 1-year-old in Conway/Springdale, Ark., is $4,680; in Boston, it’s $7,726. What to look for: According to Zero to Three guidelines, family day-care homes with mixed ages should not have more than two children younger than 2 years in a single group. The same standards as center-based care apply here, but fewer may be instituted. The National Association for Family Child Care gives accreditation to providers who have met or exceeded local and national requirements (see “Find Out More” below). Pros: Children enjoy a homey environment; there are mixed ages and usually a smaller number of children than in center-based care. Cons: There is little or no daily oversight of the caregiver(s). Parents need to have a backup plan in place if there is only one caregiver and he or she falls ill.

NannyHow it works: An individual other than a parent or relative cares for your child in your home. Cost range: The cost varies, depending on the experience and education of the nanny. The national average ranges from $300 to $1,000 a week, according to Pat Cascio, president of the International Nanny Association. What to look for: Whether you use an agency or do the search yourself, screening of each candidate should include a lengthy interview, professional and personal reference checks, checks on prior employment, background checks (including a check with the police and the Department of Motor Vehicles) and verification of the legal right to work. When you meet each candidate, ask about her job expectations and approach to child development and discipline. Also consider if your personalities are compatible. Pros: Your baby has individual attention in a familiar, quiet environment; less exposure to other kids’ germs may mean your child gets sick less often. Cons: The nanny spends the day alone and is largely unsupervised by you or your spouse; if she gets sick, you will need to have a backup plan in place; paperwork must be filled out for tax and Social Security payments; the overall expense can be very high.

Where are our children?

Grandparent 20.8% Father 18.5% Day-care center 17.9% Family day care 10.9% Other relative 8.% Other nonrelative care (e.g., a neighbor) 6.% No regular arrangement 4.6% Nursery/preschool 3.8% Caregiver in child’s home (e.g., a nanny) 3.3% With mother while working 3.1% Other arrangement 2.7% Federal Head Start program .4%

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