Choosing a childcare provider can be one of the most important decisions parents can make, particularly during the years before a child starts kindergarten. The number of available options can be overwhelming, and it is easy to be tempted to go with the first recommendation from a friend or neighbor. But experts warn that a childcare solution that works for one family might not work for yours. Here are some tips to help you find the right fit for your family.
Where to Begin
Parents generally don’t do enough research when it comes to picking the right childcare facility, says Cristina Alvarado, executive director of the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles (www.ccala.net), a membership service for agencies in Los Angeles that offers a variety of early-education and childcare services and programs. “Parents tend to research the car that they are going to buy more than they research their children’s childcare,” Alvarado says.
Begin by deciding what is most important to you. Alvarado suggests asking:
- Do our work schedules vary?
- Are we going to need help on weekends and evenings?
- Do we prefer to have our child exposed to ethnic diversity?
“It’s an extremely personal process, which is why taking the time to do your research is so important,” she says.
Judy Laureano, resource and referral manager for childcare at Connections for Children (www.connectionsforchildren.org) – a nonprofit childcare resource and referral agency serving parents, childcare providers and educators – says that getting these details nailed down early is especially important if you are looking for infant care.
And add budgeting to your list of concerns, because infant care at a childcare center can cost $900-$1,500 a month. “Make sure you find out what the center includes in the price,” says Laureano. “Some of them include the cost of food and supplies, while others you have to supply your own.”
“Good quality infant care is hard to find because it is more expensive and spots are limited (because of the higher staff to child ratio),” says Alvarado. “Look to get on a wait-list early.”
Care Outside Your Home
If you end up seeking childcare outside your home, you’ll need to decide whether a family childcare facility or a childcare center works best for your family.
Family childcare centers are located in a home, often provide care for children of a variety of ages, and tend to be more personal than childcare centers. They are generally more affordable, and sometimes have more flexible hours than childcare centers, according to the Child Care Resource Center of Los Angles (www.ccrcla.org).
Childcare centers – also referred to as nursery schools, preschools, and daycare centers – tend to have larger staffs, set schedules and larger facilities than family childcare centers do.
Both types of facilities are licensed by the state, and parents should ask to see the license of any facility they are considering. But there are many other factors to consider.
“The most important thing is to trust your instincts when you are touring childcare facilities,” says Alvarado. “You want to find a place that gives your child the best opportunities to be safe, to learn and to feel nurtured.”
She recommends looking for a facility that has plenty of books and age-appropriate toys, and plenty of fun learning activities. “Children 0-3 learn through play, so I tell parents they shouldn’t focus too much on the academic aspects at that young of an age,” says Alvarado. “When they get older, then you want to look for more academic features.”
Alison Fuligni, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at UCLA, says that it is important to observe interactions between the adults and the children at facilities you visit. Notice whether or not caregivers are engaging in conversations and helping kids understand situations around them.
It is also important for facilities to provide a large amount of free-choice time, rather than being highly teacher-directed. “In one of the papers I’ve worked on, we studied the daily routines of preschool children,” says Fuligni. “We wanted to learn what the patterns were like. Some of the programs were high free-choice and some were more balanced. We were relieved that none were highly teacher-directed.”
Ask about the training of the staff, particularly about the primary teacher’s training in child development. “Does the staff attend training or conferences that provide up-to-date information?” says Laureano. “It’s important to get refreshers and to hear about new topics.” Connections for Children and the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles both offer regular provider-training workshops.
“There are some childcare providers who continue to come to training and workshops because they really care,” says Alvarado. “Childcare is one of the lowest-paid industries in Los Angeles, so it’s important to find a place with a staff who really love what they do.”
To begin your search for a childcare center or family childcare center, download a checklist from the Connections for Children website or from the Child Care Resource Center.
Nannies and Babysitters
“The best and biggest benefit to hiring a nanny or babysitter is convenience,” says Katie Bugbee, senior managing editor and parenting expert for Care.com, an international online service that connects families with care for children, seniors, pets and homes. “The nanny comes to your house. You don’t have the juggling act of packing all the daily necessities and shuttling your child to daycare before work.”
For parents in L.A. who might not be able to make the typical closing time of 5:30 or 6 p.m. at a daycare center, a nanny or babysitter could be the best choice.
Nannies, however, are the most expensive childcare option. According to Care.com, the average weekly cost of a full-time nanny is $475, compared with $127 for a family childcare center and $186 for a daycare center. But if you have more than one child, a nanny or sitter might make sense economically.
“Depending on where you live, a nanny for two children can often be less expensive than two kids in daycare,” says Bugbee. “Our pay calculator shows an average hourly rate of $13 in the L.A. area. But check it out to see the going rate for a nanny in your specific ZIP code.”
If you have decided that a nanny or babysitter is the best option for your family, Bugbee suggests writing out what you will need from your sitter. Here is her list of questions to consider:
- How often will we need a sitter?
- How flexible do her or his hours need to be?
- Will we need the sitter to drive the kids anywhere?
- What additional tasks might we want the nanny or sitter to take on?
- What certifications (early-childhood education degree, CPR) would we like the sitter to have?
- What level of energy does our family need?
- How much experience should we require?
Bugbee advises parents not to overlook taxes, and to communicate with the new hire about them.
“If it seems like you could pay $1,900 or more to this sitter, you should make sure the sitter knows during the interview that taxes will be withheld from his or her pay from day one,” says Bugbee. “So many sitters are simply unaware of what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to payroll and taxes, so they’re unlikely to bring this subject up with the family.”
International Au Pairs
Parents interested in bringing in a live-in caregiver – and a different cultural perspective – might consider hiring an au pair, who can provide in-home care for up to 45 hours a week for two years.
The monthly cost of an au pair is $360-$440, which tends to be less than a nanny and can potentially be more flexible, according to Cultural Care Au Pair (www.culturalcareaupair.com), an au pair placement agency.
According to Tracy Cota, Cultural Care Au Pair’s local development director in Los Angeles, a family can be matched with an au pair who has been screened by the U.S. State Department from any of the 20 different countries within five to six weeks.
“We try to set up every family for success,” says Cota. “ The au pair and family are set up with a childcare consultant who checks in every month and makes sure everyone is happy. They can also be a mediator for any issues.”
Whether you search out someone from inside or outside the country to care for your child in your home, or choose to seek care from a family childcare provider or daycare center, keep looking until you find a childcare situation where you feel your child has a safe space to explore, learn and grow. You’ll find the research was worth it.
Melanie Gaball is a former L.A. nanny and frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.