How to Choose Childcare

So you’ve just gotten a positive pregnancy test and you're considering telling your parents and close friends. What else should you do?

Sign up for childcare, of course!

You're likely staring at the screen saying: "What? I just took a pregnancy test. I haven't even been to my doctor/midwife yet. You want me to think about childcare?"

In response, I offer this passage a woman posted on a listserve I subscribe to:

"So, after three years on the waitlist (literally since I was six weeks pregnant) for the daycare at my office, our two and a half year old finally got a spot! Woohoo!"

And that is far from the first time I've heard of that happening. Several years on a waitlist for childcare. I wish I were joking.

When I was pregnant with our first child, we started looking into daycares and found the same thing: years long waitlists.

It’s likely more common in more urban areas, but even if you don’t have years long waitlist, you still have to sort out the different options for childcare. Obviously this requires some planning.

Looking for childcare assumes you are returning to work. We'll talk about that in another blog. But - assuming you are returning to work, you'll need someone to look after your baby.


Here is an overview of most of the childcare options, pros-and-cons. (I refer to women, and use the pronoun "she," since most childcare workers are women. There are certainly some men working in daycares and I've seen men post nanny ads). 

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 9.05.40 PM
Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 9.05.40 PM


What do you take into account when choosing childcare? There are a lot of things to consider such as:

- Location: commute time, parking, train, etc. Keep in mind you'll have a small person with you, so just hopping out of the car and dashing in somewhere now includes strollers or car seats

- Cost: the cost of childcare was a shocker for me. Even though I had heard of people delaying a second child until the first was out of childcare, I just didn't get it. You could pay as much as your housing costs (you know, just double that rent/mortgage payment every month). Check here for average childcare costs in your state. This article states that childcare costs now rival college tuition in more than 50% of the US. (We happen to live in one of those areas - yikes.)

- Flexibility: are they open early enough for you to get to work on time? Can someone stay late if you have a late meeting? Are you charged by-the-minute after closing time? Also – note that if you and your partner both work full-time, it’s likely that your child will spend more than 40 hours/week in childcare. You’ll have to stagger your schedules (one parent doing drop off, another doing pickup), but even then, when you add commutes on top of a full time workday, it becomes a long day for you and your baby.

- Specifications: ratios of children to caregivers, caregiver training and turnover, number of windows, exits, food preparation space, etc.

Style: this one is crucial. This is more than the number of caregivers they have per infant room. This is how they care for the children. If you don't have children yet you probably aren't sure what your parenting style is, but soon after you have a baby, you'll start to have strong opinions of how they are interacted with. Does the daycare follow a precise schedule or does the day follow a general routine? How do they handle naps? Do they allow time for uninterrupted play? Do they have a TV on? Do they use particular types of 'discipline?' Your needs will change as your child grows, and your style will develop as your time as a parent increases. But this is one that you want to have a handle on as much as you can when choosing childcare.

- Feel: Do you get a warm feeling when you walk in? Do the other children in this situation seem happy? Is the person you are interacting with able to answer your questions? Do you like their answers? Your gut is going to tell you something. What is it saying?

- Prayer: this may go in the “feel” category, but what does the Spirit say to you as you consider these options. Do you feel a sense of leading in one direction or another?

So How Do You Choose?

Like most choices in life, it boils down to what is most important to you. All these variables influence one another. You may find a stellar daycare, that is just the tone you want for your baby, but it's 15 minutes from your house, in the opposite direction from work. You could do it - but what is the impact to the rest of your life? Or - you find one that is right in your neighborhood, but it has more children assigned to each caregiver than you think is reasonable. Or – you find a nanny who seems like a great fit for your family, and you like the idea of your children being in their own home, but tax and liability insurance requirements are daunting. Or – you get a spiritual sense that you should pursue one option, but the numbers just don’t line up.

What is most important to you? Is it most important for you to have a reasonable commute? Is it most important for you to have one person your child can bond with? Is cost your main driver? Do you truly hear God’s still small voice telling you something?

Please hear me when I say I do not ask these questions flippantly. Of course ideally, we’d all like a perfect arrangement.

I know people in all of these arrangements who have had fantastic experiences, and people who have had horrible experiences. There are anecdotes for each care situation and your experience can vary widely from one arrangement to another. Unfortunately, childcare is a largely unregulated industry. As expensive as it is, childcare workers are generally poorly paid and except for traditional daycares, receive little-to-no training. There are regulations for traditional daycares, and some for home daycares and nannies; but generally nannies and nanny share arrangements are ad-hoc.

Given how much the early years impact to the rest of their lives (click here for some info on early development) choosing childcare is pretty important. You want them somewhere they can become attached to the caregivers, where they can feel safe to explore, learn, rest, and grow. But those environments are hard to find, and when you do find them, they seem like they will break your budget.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

But it’s important to not get overwhelmed.

Remember that this is only one component of how your children are raised, the environment you provide at home is also critical, and you want to make a decision that allows you to provide the best environment both at home and in care. So if you stress yourself out sending your child to the most expensive daycare, that adds over an hour to your day based on its location, you’ll be a basket case at home. That is not good for anyone.

While the early years of their lives are critical, you want to be an engaged parent over the course of their lives, you don’t want to exhaust all your emotional and financial resources now - you’ll need a lot of both as they get older!

Is Cost the Main Driver?

For each family, the variables will carry different weight and obviously, only you and your spouse can make these decisions for your family. I’m not going to lie – it feels like cost is the main driver for most people. What can you afford? It can easily feel like most of your salary is going to childcare costs.

Additionally, if you make more money, you can afford better childcare. When I heard a young woman I worked with, who has a more administrative position than me (and thereby a lower salary), describe where her children spend the day, I wanted to cry. She loves her children just as much as I do, but I have the resources for them to be in a more safe and loving environment. It’s a nut I want to crack.

I want to encourage you to think outside the financial box. In my mind, continuing to work is not just a decision for today, to pay today’s bills. It’s about my long-term participation in the workforce. It’s about my ability to be a good wife and parent over the long-term.

In the same way, paying for childcare is not something that comes out of just today’s resources. It’s an investment in our children, and I know that how they are raised now will impact how they are as older children and adults, I want them somewhere that will set them up to be healthy members of society. If it costs a little more than the cheapest option, it might be worth it in terms of their long-term development.

How to make your choice:

Prayerfully consider your choices, prayerfully consider the way God has arranged your family and the personalities in it, prayerfully consider both the short-term and longer-term impacts of any of your decisions, weigh the variables, and make your choice.

Some final notes:

  • It may take time to find a good fit. Pretty much everyone I know who has children more than a year or two old has gone through at least one switch. Maybe the daycare you originally picked has different philosophies than you originally understood; maybe the nanny you and your neighbor chose for your nanny share is repeatedly late for work; maybe your AuPair doesn’t actually like children, she just wanted to live abroad. It’s frustrating and exhausting, and sometimes concerning for your children, but you will go through changes. And while you don’t want to put your children through unnecessary changes, as people will tell you – children are resilient.
  • No arrangement will be perfect – people have quirks, places have ways of doing things that are not quite what you’d prefer. But your children will learn something different from each experience. When something isn’t going right, it can stick out like a sore thumb. But consider it against the other variables, and consider what you would lose by changing to another arrangement.
  • Part time arrangements are harder to come by. Most formal childcare centers want you to commit to a full slot, because for them, juggling multiple parents’ part-time needs would be untenable. And for home arrangements – like a nanny – many are looking for a full time job. (Being a nanny is a pretty insecure occupation – you work in someone’s home environment, and even in the best of circumstances, your job will only last a few years. Nannies need as much security as you can give them.) Even if you want part-time care, you may have to consider paying for full-time childcare, at least in the infant stage.
  • Please, please, please - do not "work from home" while also caring for your small child as a matter of practice. You owe your employer your attention when you are on the clock, and you owe your children an attentive caregiver throughout the day. And you can't do both at the same time. (There are occasional instances where you need to do that - you're home taking care of a sick child and there's a random meeting you have to call in for or something.  It may be okay in those circumstances. But as a practice - you can't do two things [well] at once.) (Also, check your company policies, some places strictly forbid teleworking when you are home with children under a certain age). 
  • Keep in mind the "Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account" - you can set aside up to $5000 of your income to pay for childcare tax free.
  • Don’t panic. There are a lot of decisions you have to make as a parent, this is a big one in the early years, but just one.