Types of child care: The basics

The first thing you need to know about childcare is that, for better or worse, you have options, and the choice that works for your neighbor or sister or best friend may not be the one that works best for you.

Here are the four most common childcare options:

Center-based childcare: Childcare centers – sometimes called daycare centers, preschools, nursery schools, child development programs, learning centers – serve groups of children in one space and may be sponsored by a religious organizations, colleges or universities, hospitals, social service organizations, businesses or employers, or independent owners. These centers generally feature multiple caregivers looking after a group of children, and many parents take comfort in the staff, space, equipment, toys and organized activities that these facilities provide. All states require child-care centers to be licensed, though the requirements for licensing vary state to state. Licensing ensures that the centers meet certain basic standards for health, safety and staff training. In order to retain a license, facilities must be inspected by the state at least once a year. However, the state is only checking to make sure that minimal standards are met – they should not be taken as a mark of high quality. You should visit the facility, observe the caregivers and children, ask questions, and talk to other parents before making your decision.

Family child-care providers: Family child-care providers often provide care for several children – either the same age or different ages – in the provider’s own home. Advantages include an atmosphere that may not be unlike the child’s own home; a single caregiver with whom the child may form a strong, nurturing bond; other children with whom the child can interact yet a small enough group of children that they may get individual attention from the care provider. Family child-care situations may also be close to home, flexible in terms of scheduling and less expensive than other options. Some family child-care providers care for their own children as well. In most states, family child-care providers are regulated if they care for more than four children – though some states offer optional regulation for those caring for four or fewer children. Though specific requirements vary in each state, all states require that minimum health, safety and nutrition standards be met. Most states inspect the providers’ homes, either annually or randomly, and also require that family child-care providers pass criminal records checks and that they do not have a history of child abuse or neglect. In some states, providers must also meet child-care training requirements.

In-home caregivers: A nanny, a babysitter or an au pair (an in-home caregiver) may live in your home or just come to it each day to take care of your child. This option is convenient: you don’t have to take your kid anywhere; your child is in his or her own home, able to play with his or her own toys; you get to set the schedule and the day’s activities and, within certain boundaries, the pay rate. Your child also has one person whose job it is to care for him or her exclusively – unless your caregiver has other responsibilities, like housekeeping or cooking. And because your child is not spending the day in a large group of children, he or she may be exposed to fewer illnesses. In general, states do not regulate in-home caregivers, though in certain situations – if, say, the caregiver is receiving child-care subsidy payments – they may require a background check for a criminal history or child abuse or neglect. On the downside, this option may be considerably more expensive than many others, though if you have more than one child the financial picture can be more favorable.

Relatives, friends or neighbors: If you have a trusted relative, friend or neighbor who can care for your child while you work, count yourself seriously lucky. Who better to provide your child with warm, attentive care than someone who already loves them? Just try to make your needs (and have them make theirs) as clear as possible. Open communication is key to making these situations work for the long-term.

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