By Danielle Rice, Editor, Piedmont Family Magazine
Who will help care for your children while you’re working or in school is a very important and personal decision. There is no right option for childcare, and choosing the best option for your family may seem overwhelming. In addition to all the pressure associated with going back to work or school and leaving your children in the care of others, you don’t want to worry about whether you’ve made the right choice.
So, what are your options, how do you choose, and how do you know when it’s working? Read on…
Considering the Options
One that is typically affordable and may be close to home is Family Child Care. These caregivers are either county permitted or state licensed to provide care in their homes for a specified number of children.
“Many parents choose this, especially for infants and toddlers, because it offers the comforts of home and a small, mixed-age group setting,” says Carol Osborn, an early childcare educator in Fairfax, Va. The downside to this arrangement, notes Osborn, is that a provider may not be able to offer early and late hours and may not have back-up care when needing to close unexpectedly for personal reasons.
Kith and Kin care is childcare provided by friends and relatives. This is desirable because the child and family are familiar with the caregiver; however, these providers often are not licensed, and consequently, are not required to take training in order to continue caring for children.
Center-based care is often more accessible because centers have varied sites of operation. Childcare centers are often open longer hours, allowing more flexibility for parents who work full-time or have a long commute. A center may also be able to care of a wider age-range and may have more resources for programs such as second language, music, art, swimming, summer camp or field trips. The childcare industry has evolved since the early 70s, and centers are now often more like schools, offering age-appropriate and individualized curricula, explains Dr. Rosemary Burton, VP of education for Minnieland Acadmey.
Another advantage to using center-based care, notes Dr. Burton, is that your child can often stay in the same place with the same teachers for many years, providing continuity and resources to meet his changing needs. “We have some families who stay with us from the time their children are babies through school-age. Our staff becomes like an extended family,” she says.
Nanny (live-in or out) or Au Pair care might be comfortable for the child and easier on the family’s routines. But, they can also be expensive and, as you are relying on only one person, you may need back-up care for when your caregiver is sick or takes time off. In addition, with only one person in your home, there is no one to supervise the care being given to your child.
Some schools offer after-school care for your school-aged child. These programs are usually only available during the school year, but some also operate a summer program.
Making a Choice
Which choice is right for your child is a personal decision influenced by many factors including the needs of your child, family values, budget, work arrangements, and options available in your community.
“As parents we want what is best for our children,” says Osborn. That seems obvious, yet choosing childcare isn’t an easy task. Part of the reason, says Osborn, is that parents are constrained by their jobs, geographic locations, and financial situations. “Parents want the best care for their children, but if you ask most parents how they chose their child care setting, the answer is often affordability and accessibility.”
There are good choices out there that can provide quality care for your kids and also help you stay on schedule and in budget. How do you choose? Here are some tips:
Start early and do your research. Plan ahead as far as possible. You don’t want to be struggling to find suitable childcare the week you’re supposed to return to work. You’ll want time to weigh your options and reserve a place if necessary. You don’t want to be disappointed that your top choice is full or have to choose a situation you’re not comfortable with because you haven’t had time to look. Think about what you want from a childcare situation, research your options and make a list of pros and cons.
Visit the places you are considering. Looking at the facility can tell you a lot. Is the physical environment clean and safe? Are there age appropriate activities and spaces designed for children? Try to visit when there are children there and look at how the children and caregivers interact. Is the environment fun, loving, and positive? “There has to be a level of comfort and compatibility among parent, child, and caregivers,” says Dr. Burton, noting that visiting the childcare setting (before choosing and even after your child is in care) is one of the best ways to see how it will work for your family.
Get references. Ask for references from trusted friends, neighbors or colleagues. Talk to other parents who use the childcare you are considering. “Really listen to what the references say, as well as the feeling behind the words,” advises Osborn. Ask about issues that are important to your family, such as reliability, cost, or attitude of caregivers.
Interview the caregivers. Ask thoughtful questions about the program and tell the caregiver about your child. Inform her about your child’s likes, dislikes, interests, favorite stories and songs, family traditions, and what your expectations are for his growth and development. Have your child meet the caregiver as well, and see how they interact.
While looking for childcare for my first child many years ago, I was interviewing a woman who I did not know at all, but whose ad I had seen in the paper. When I arrived for the interview, my daughter (who was just a few months old) started crying. The woman asked me if there was anything I needed to calm the baby, and I said I needed to nurse her. The woman offered to give me a few minutes alone and returned after I’d finished feeding my daughter. I thought that was very sensitive and respectful of my role as a new mom, and that one little thing led me to believe she was the right choice for us. Turns out, my instinct was right, and we started a relationship that lasted several years, ending only when I moved out of the area.
Assessing Your Decision
After all the searching is done, the setting is chosen, and your child is settled in, how do you know the arrangement is working? The answer, says Osborn, comes from your own parental instincts. “You are the best judge of what feels right for your child and family,” she says.
- Look at your child. Is he happy to be with his caregiver? My youngest daughter used to ask for her caregiver even on weekends. I knew she was happy there! And when my middle child was about a year old, he started crying for “Ms. Lalu” every day. I discovered that she was one of the caregivers at his childcare center who had been moved to another class; he’d definitely formed an attachment to her.
- Look at yourself. Are you feeling comfortable while at work, with a sense of well-being that your child is happy and in good hands? Would you recommend your childcare provider to others?
- Look at your caregiver. Does she greet you and your child with a smile at arrival and departure? Are you connecting with an understanding of each other, feeling confident in the childcare situation, and being honest and open in your communication? In other words, is there a sense of respect and trust? Periodically drop-in unannounced for a visit. Seeing how the children and childcare provider interact on a daily basis can tell you a lot about how the arrangement is working.
“Quality childcare is a partnership between caregivers and families,” Osborn notes. “If you are comfortable with the care your child is getting most likely he will be comfortable, too.”