You want quality childcare that stimulates and nurtures your children, gives you peace of mind and doesn’t break the bank. It’s what every parent wants for their little ones—the absolute best they can find. We’ve listed the 11 most important questions to ask yourself when considering your childcare options.
1: What is your budget for childcare?
Cost is a big factor in the childcare search. The amount families must spend for quality care varies widely depending on their location, hours needed, and a caregiver’s duties, experience, education and special skills or training. Our first recommendation is to review your income and expenses and calculate a figure that feels comfortable to invest. (That’s right—it’s helpful to consider childcare an investment rather than an expense; after all, the right care will provide peace of mind, the ability for you to continue your career and early education for your kids). Once you compare the cost of your options, you’ll have important information to factor into your decision.
2: Which is more important for your children: socialization or one-on-one attention?
Daycare centers provide the opportunity for children to interact with others; but they lack the one-on-one, consistent care an au pair or nanny provide. Au pairs and nannies act as a consistent presence and provide one-on-one attention but there are fewer built-in opportunities for socialization. With a nanny share or family daycare, your children are at least spending time with one (or a few) more children. And families with their own au pairs or nannies can set up opportunities for socialization through playgroups and playdates, but it takes more effort.
3: How much flexibility do you need?
Are your childcare needs relatively consistent from week to week or is your schedule more unpredictable? Will you benefit from having the ability to schedule coverage in the early mornings, evenings or weekends on occasion or even regularly? These are important questions to ask because some childcare options accommodate unpredictable schedules and hours outside of the 9-to-5 norm better than others.
Center-based and family daycares often have limited hours of operation—so consider whether these options will prove to be too rigid (or expensive—those late fees can add up!) for your work schedule. On the other hand, you can negotiate flexible hours with an au pair and with a nanny (who is willing). An au pair can work up to 45 hours a week (no more than 10 hours a day) on a schedule you customize from week to week. Au pairs can work a split schedule, and provide coverage in the early mornings, evenings and even on weekends as long as your requests are reasonable and they don’t exceed their 45-hour/week, 10-hour/day limit. Most nannies (especially those that live-out and those that are shared) want a schedule that is consistent from week to week, but they will often stay a little later or arrive earlier if you need wiggle room.
4: How important is convenience?
In an ideal scenario, your childcare solution won’t add undue inconvenience to your already busy life. When considering daycares, make sure your options are close by (think of it like you would your gym—is it convenient enough that you can easily get there on your way to and from work?) If you want to skip the inconvenience and stress of pick-up and drop-offs altogether consider an au pair, nanny or willing family member.
It is also worth mentioning that compared with children who stay at home with mom, dad or another caregiver, babies who attend large daycare centers before age 2.5 come down with more respiratory bugs and ear infections during their early preschool years . Another study estimates that parents who send an infant to daycare should expect him or her to fall ill an average of nine to ten times a year.10 If daycare is your preference it would be wise to have a back-up plan in mind in case you end up with a sick child who needs to stay home. If you rely on an au pair, nanny or family member for coverage, you don’t have to worry as much about your children getting sick, but what happens if your provider isn’t feeling well? Nearly half of all families who employ nannies offer paid sick days and of those that do, most limit the number to five. According to program regulations, au pairs are entitled to take the time they need to recover from illness and are paid their weekly stipend while doing so.
5: Could you use some help around the house?
Having a childcare provider who can pitch in to help with household duties is big bonus for many families. Of course, daycare centers can’t offer that support, but au pairs and nannies can assist with chores at home. According to U.S. State Department guidelines, au pairs can be asked to help with household chores related to the children including laundry, meal preparation and room clean-up. Nannies and family member can be asked to complete household tasks they’re willing to take on (although it may cost you more money). Au pairs, nannies and family members can also drive children to lessons, games and activities and help school-aged kids with homework.
6: How soon do you need childcare?
Some childcare arrangements take a long time to secure while others can be put in place relatively quickly. If you’re considering daycare, be aware that the most popular ones fill up quickly, and they can have extensive waiting lists—some as long as a year or more. Competition for spots is even more fierce for parents with infants and for those who live in urban areas. For this reason, it’s a good idea to inquire and add your name to several lists early on even if you are still shopping around. Typically, there is less of a wait for a spot in a family-run daycare but they still have limited availability in many areas.
The time it takes for an au pair to arrive to your home will depend on the availability of candidates and your family’s specific needs. In most cases, au pairs arriving from overseas can travel to your home as soon as eight to ten weeks after you register with an agency. For families who need immediate care, they may consider taking an au pair who is already in the country and going through a rematch—meaning she has parted ways with her previous family and is looking for a new host family. In-country au pairs can arrive to a family’s home in as little as three days.
If you’re on the hunt for a nanny, finding the right match can happen quickly or it may take more time, depending on your needs. Using a reputable agency or online service and asking for recommendations from your network of friends and family will help speed the process along. Setting up a nanny share typically takes longer because, in addition to finding the right nanny, you’ll be on the hunt for a family who lives close by, needs similar hours of coverage, and who shares the same parenting philosophies you do. It’s like fitting three pieces of a puzzle together versus two.
7: How much control do you want over your child’s environment?
Are you impressed with the environment your local daycare centers or family daycare provide? Are you happy to leave the activity planning up to someone else? Are you okay with the fact that your child will be cared for by a variety of different people during the week? Will you be fine with you child’s caregiver using their own approach to discipline your child? If you answered “yes” to these questions, center-based or family daycare may be a good choice for you. A good daycare center should be able to provide a clean, safe environment and a well-rounded schedule of activities that your child will be doing during the week. The education and training requirements for daycare workers vary by state, but quality daycare centers have minimum requirements for staff including high school diploma, childcare experience and a clean criminal background check. (It’s up to you to ensure the daycare center you choose has a strict screening policy in place.)
On the other hand you may want a little more control over what your children are doing (and watching and listening to) and who your child’s primary caregiver is. You might want your child to be cared for by someone with parenting philosophies that align with your own. In this case, an au pair, nanny or family member may be a better fit. With an au pair or nanny, you can be as specific about the activities your child is engaged in and how they should be disciplined, praised, etc. Another advantage to someone caring for your children at home? Your kids can play, rest and eat in their own familiar environment.
Another important difference between daycare centers and other childcare options is that with daycare, you can’t be as picky about who your children are spending their time with. Most parents at least meet with the teachers at daycare centers they are considering but there is no guarantee that those teachers will be the ones caring for your children. It is well-documented that the turnover rate for the daycare center workforce is very high—within a year, an average of 30% of teachers and assistants leave their jobs . It’s also worth noting that daycare teachers’ backgrounds and experience vary considerably based on what education and training requirements the center and the state you live in require.
With an au pair or nanny, you can be much more particular about who is taking care of your little ones. And, in the case of an au pair, you can also feel confident that candidates have already been screened and trained. Cultural Care’s pool of available au pairs includes hundreds of candidates who are pre-screened—all have childcare experience (at least 200 hours; in most cases many more), and they all complete a 4-day orientation and training program before arriving to your home. During the program, au pairs have the opportunity to receive certification from the American Heart Association in adult and pediatric CPR and First Aid. Most nanny agencies also screen their applicants as well as provide background checks and references. If you are searching for nannies yourself online, that responsibility will be largely yours.
8: Are you interested in cultural exchange?
Does exposing your children to other cultures appeal to you? Are you hopeful that your child will one day learn another language? Is it important that your children learn sensitivity to other cultures and heritages? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, recognize that the au pair program allows your children to experience all of these things right in your own home. Of course, there are other ways to raise culturally sensitive, multi-lingual children, but the advantage to accomplishing this through hosting an au pair is that it happens organically and at no extra cost to you. A nanny or nanny shares may also provide the opportunity for exposure to a different culture.
9: Would a live-in solution work for your family?
While there are some families who welcome the idea of live-in help, a lot of parents will immediately dismiss a live-in situation, for any number or reasons. Obviously, daycare centers and most nannies will satisfy a “live-out” criterion, and the benefit of a live-out situation is that at the end of the day, you and your family have all the time alone you need and you don’t have to worry about another person’s feelings, habits and behavior.
However, if you are tempted to overlook in-home care, ask yourself why you would veto a live-in au pair or nanny. Is it because of lack of privacy? (Most au pairs and live-in nannies spend their free time with friends.) Is it because you think it will be “weird” to have a stranger living in your home? (After a short adjustment period, most families consider their live-in au pairs and nannies to be more like extended family members.) You may also want to take into account the many advantages that come with live-in care—more flexibility and convenience; another adult in the home; and the ability to carefully choose your ideal provider.
10: How willing are you to invest time into an employer/caregiver relationship?
This is an important point to consider, because if the answer is “not very”, neither an au pair nor a nanny will be the right option for you. Maintaining a good working relationship with an au pair or nanny requires regular communication and negotiation, and showing that you care about your au pair or nanny is an essential part of the deal. While you may consider a nanny to be your employee, an au pair by definition is “on par” or “equal to”, indicating that your au pair should be considered more like an extended family member. Au pairs require even more of a time investment because they need help adjusting to a new culture as well. (For this reason, the U.S. Department of State requires host parents to stay at home with their au pairs for the first three days after her arrival.) While the time investment is more involved with au pairs and nannies, the payoff can be worth it. If you decide to secure childcare coverage from a family member, the time commitment and emotional investment can be equally as involved.
11: What childcare options support the ideal lifestyle you envision for your family?
This is the last, but perhaps most important question to ask yourself. Try to picture how each of the childcare solutions discussed would affect your life and imagine whether it would bring peace and harmony to your home or more stress and hardship. Focus on what will work best for your needs. Do you know your demanding work schedule will make the drop-off and pick-up to and from daycare a nightmare? Consider an au pair or nanny. Do you love the idea of welcoming someone into your home to provide energy, one-on-one attention and exposure to a new language and culture? Maybe an au pair is best. Do you want the individualized attention but not the permanent house guest? Maybe a nanny or nanny share is best. Is it important to you that your child have the chance to play with others his age and you’ve identified quality daycare facilities near your home? Daycare might be the answer. Visualize, do your homework and ultimately trust your instincts to choose what feels best for your family.
 Hurwitz ES, Gunn WJ, Pinsky PF, Schonberger LB. “Risk of respiratory illness associated with day care attendance: a nationwide study.” Pediatrics. 1991; 8762-69. 10Loda, FA, Glezen, WP, Clyde WA Jr., “Respiratory disease in group day care.” Pediatrics, Vol.49, 1972. pp.428-437. Print.
 MacMillan, Meredith. “NAEYC Calls for Fair Compensation for the Early Childhood Workforce on Worthy Wage Day.” National Association for the Education of Young Children. 01 May 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.