How to find the best situation for your child
Picturing yourself without your pregnant belly and with your baby in someone else’s care may be difficult right now. Nevertheless, whether your child will need an occasional baby sitter or will be among the 44 percent of infants younger than 1 year who receive regular non-parental care, the last few months of pregnancy is the time to start your search for caregivers. But it’s not easy, either emotionally or logistically. In addition to the worry and grief that can accompany leaving a child under someone else’s care, particularly a stranger’s, many parents find it difficult to simply find good care. The good news — at least from the emotional point of view — is that a recent report conducted by the National Academy of Science (NAS) has found that as long as the care is high quality, there is no harm for a child to be cared for by non-parental caregivers. But what exactly is high-quality child care? “The specific kind of care is not important; what matters is a relationship with a limited number of caregivers who are reliable, nurturing and attuned to the needs of children,” says Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., chairman of the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development at the NAS and the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and one of the authors of the report. “The problem,” he adds, “is that there is not enough high-quality, affordable infant care in this country.” All the more reason to start your search early. The key is to find people who devote themselves to forming stable, loving relationships and creating a safe, stimulating environment. For a good match, ask questions about their approach to child care, such as: How long do you let children cry before tending to them? How do you soothe a crying baby? To help you narrow down your options, here’s a guide to the different choices available.
Center-based care is provided in settings ranging from free-standing centers to schools, churches, synagogues, community centers or workplaces. What to look for: A visit is critical. “Determine if the location is safe and cheerful and the teachers are engaged with the children,” says Diane Umstead, program manager for Child Care Aware, a program of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies in Washington, D.C. “Look for age-appropriate toys and books. Ask the director about the daily schedule, the rate of staff turnover, staff experience and background checks. See how responsive the director is to your needs; for example, can you stop by to breastfeed?” Also ask about the ratio of caregivers to children; an ideal ratio for newborns to 1-year-olds is 1 adult to 2 children, with 1 to 3 being acceptable, Shonkoff advises.
Pros: Socialization with other kids; lower-priced than one-on-one care; more supervision of caregivers. Cons: Inflexible schedule; less one-on-one attention; children may get sick more often.
Family-based day care is provided in a private home. What to look for: The same general tips apply as for center-based care. Other points: Since licensing requirements are minimal in many states, carefully check the safety of the home. Make sure you get references and a background check of the provider from your local police department and police agencies of any other states of residency. Also check for licensing: Accreditation by the National Association for Family Child Care means the home meets standards for safety, cleanliness and quality. Pros: Homey feel; mixed ages of children; flexible hours; less expensive than one-on-one or center-based care. Cons: Backup needed if provider is sick; need to be aware of what’s going on at the home.
Nannies care for your child either as live-in or live-out help. How to find a nanny: Agencies supply candidates, run background checks and verify references. You can also conduct a search yourself by advertising in the newspaper or relying on word of mouth. For families searching for a nanny on their own, Becky Kavanagh, president of the International Nanny Association in Haddonfield, N.J., recommends checking six references (including character references), doing a background and driver-license check (contact the Department of Motor Vehicles for the latter), and asking how long prior assignments lasted (one to two years indicates stability). However you find her, your nanny should be a U.S. citizen or legal resident with a green card (a registration card that grants a non-resident permission to reside and work in the United States). Also note that you’ll need to deduct Social Security taxes and report her wages to the Internal Revenue Service. Pros: One-on-one attention; familiar surroundings; flexible hours. Cons: Expensive; lots of paperwork; lack of socialization with other kids; backup necessary if nanny is sick.
Au pairs come from around the world, are placed by agencies that prescreen applicants and provide up to 45 hours of child care a week while living in your home. What to look for: Since you’ll only be able to interview candidates on the phone, be honest about your expectations, and ask about theirs. Also ask about their experience with children, as well as their child-care philosophy and any safety training they have had.
Pros: Relatively affordable; benefits of cultural exchange; flexible hours. Cons: No chance to meet your au pair before hiring.
Relative care is an easy solution if a relative has the time to commit and shares your values on child rearing. Pros: Built-in trust; care is usually free or inexpensive. Cons: Hard feelings can result if there are any problems.