Day care, and nannies and au pairs, oh my! There are a myriad of child care choices available to families today, but figuring out which option is best is no easy task. Parents of young children have a particularly difficult job, because care providers for children under two are not as prevalent as those for older children.
Because babies have more needs than older children, they require a higher level of care. That translates to higher costs for care centres and parents. Deciding on the right care setting for your little one is a big decision, requiring careful thought, research and planning.
Before you decide which option is best for you, consider the following factors:
Money – Parents know that child care will be expensive, but few are prepared for the shock of the actual dollar amount - even for those seeking part-time care. Looking at the total cost of child care per month can be scary. But stay calm. This is an important investment, so re-examine your family finances before making any decisions.
Determine a monthly range that your family can afford. For example, if you figure you can spend around $800 per month, are you prepared to spend $900 if a certain month has an extra week? Will you be able to spring for incidentals such as field trips and fundraisers? Always give yourself a cushion for unexpected tuition changes, occasional nights out (and hiring a babysitter), or little odds and ends that arise.
Flexibility - While flexibility in the work place is fairly common, especially for parents of young children, it isn’t yet an option everywhere. When you decide on a child care solution, you also need to take into account your work schedule.
What will happen if your child gets sick? Are you able to leave work early or arrive late? Also consider schedule conflicts. Day care centres may close on certain holidays when you have to work. A babysitter or nanny may get sick at the last minute and not be able to make it. Create a realistic back-up plan that you, your family and your employer can live with so you aren’t scrambling to handle surprises that may pop up.
Expertise - No one is going to care for your child in exactly the same way you do. Even if you have family members or the most agreeable babysitter in the world, there are bound to be some differences. And that’s not a bad thing. Kids need to learn to adapt to different people’s personalities and preferences, while also expressing their own. Just make sure your expectations for behavior and meeting basic needs are consistent.
When you find a person or centre that feels right, ask about the experience of individuals who will interact with your child. What is their educational background? How long have they worked with kids of this age? Are they certified in infant First-Aid/CPR? Parents need to weigh how important these things are to them, and determine their deal-breakers.
Health - Most pediatricians will tell you that the average child gets between four and eight colds per year. This doesn’t seem so bad, but when you realize that most of them will happen between late Fall and early Spring, and that a ‘cold’ can last up to two weeks, it may start to feel like your child is perpetually sick. As a result, you are constantly stressing, missing work or scrambling for last-minute care.
If your child is cared for in a setting with other children, chances are they’ll have a few unexpected visits to the doctor, or at best a very runny nose. While the general consensus is that the first year in a day-care-type setting is the worst for sicknesses, the ailments don’t end after that. If your child is particularly sensitive to seasonal illnesses, you may want to find a temporary one-on-one care solution, or review the sanitation procedures at the day care.
If you have a nanny, find out upfront if they are comfortable caring for a sick child. You don’t want to find out on your way out the door that your babysitter doesn’t know how to take a temperature or is nervous about giving medicine.
Philosophy – This is probably the single most important aspect when choosing child care for young children. Because your child will be spending a lot of time with their caregiver, your child will be learning a lot of behavioral and problem-solving cues. You need to figure out how the caregiver’s philosophy on learning, setting limits and maintaining schedules matches up with your own. This can be sticky – regardless of what type of care you have. Make a point to observe your child in the setting for an hour or so before committing. You can also ask their teacher or babysitter how they handle certain situations like tantrums and conflicts. The conversation may be awkward, but at least you’ll know if you are on the same page.
The breakdown: pros and cons of some popular child care solutions
Child care centre/day care: Your child attends a group child care setting with other children of a similar age.
Pros – Child care centres have strict regulations, so the staff is usually certified in First-Aid/CPR, and the child to caregiver ratio is low. Many centres also require their caregivers to complete an early childhood certification program, so they are trained in working with young children.
Cons – Your child will probably contract more than their fair share of viruses, especially their first year. Because there are several children per adult, your child may have to adjust to a group schedule of feeding and napping that may differ from the one at home.
Nanny or babysitter: Your child receives care from an individual in your home.
Pros – Your child has the undivided attention of a caregiver in a safe, familiar place. It also makes maintaining a feeding and napping schedule easy.
Cons – Lack of socialization. As your child gets older, you may want them to interact with other babies or toddlers, not just adults, to learn about sharing, taking turns, etc.
Family member: A grandparent, aunt or uncle, or other family member cares for your child in your home or theirs.
Pros – Family members have a personal relationship with your child, so it’s probably the closest thing to having you there.
Cons – If your family member doesn’t agree with your way of doing things, they may do what worked for their kids. They may feel more comfortable doing their own thing without consulting you.
Au pair: Au pairs are typically young female nannies who live in your home and work up to 40 hours per week caring for your children.
Pros – Because most au pairs come to Canada from another country, they introduce new cultural perspectives and ideas to your children. Often, the overall cost is less per hour than traditional babysitters or nannies.
Cons – Having someone enter your home (and your lives) for a year is a big commitment. You need to make sure you and your family are prepared for this. Most au pairs commit up to one year, so you’ll have to repeat the process again next year.
Hybrid: A combination of any of the options listed above.
Pros – You can customize care to meet your needs, and possibly save money. Your child gets to experience different settings, and learns to socialize with a variety of people.
Cons – Change can be confusing for children, and if your hybrid schedule isn’t regimented, your child’s routines (eating, sleeping, etc.), may suffer.
Finding quality care is possible if parents do their homework. Take a good long look at each of these areas before making a commitment. But don’t stop there. Revisit these topics periodically to make sure your child care solution is meeting your child’s needs and making sense for your family.
Beth is a freelance writer and mother of two.
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