How to find childcare that works for your family

If returning to work after having a baby was a recipe, finding childcare that’s a good fit for your family would be one of the key ingredients. Finding childcare – and more than that, finding the right childcare – is tough. Getting started on your search early can help the process go much more smoothly. Have you started your own search yet? Or already found childcare? If not, the time is now!

Take it step by step

Finding childcare might be a lot easier than you expect, and something could fall into your lap with little effort on your part. It happens! But for many families, it does take some effort. Thinking about what you want in a childcare provider and doing careful research will help you find a good fit – and in plenty of time for your planned return to work.

  • Lay the groundwork: Ask around to see if anyone you’re close to has recommendations for childcare. Coworkers can be a great resource, since they likely have very similar needs to you in terms of flexibility, timing, and cost. Family and friends might also know about good local options, since many of the people you’re closest to may share your values and ideas about what makes for a good childcare set-up. You might even find other new parents to be a great resource – expecting parents who you met in birthing classes before Baby was born, new parents who you’ve met in play groups since then, or folks who go to the same healthcare provider as you – as they may have recently been looking for childcare too. These folks can also be great to touch base with if you’re interested in something like sharing a nanny.
  • Explore your options: Many states have financial assistance programs for childcare, sometimes including transportation costs. Your employer may also provide some benefits related to childcare, or your family may be eligible for tax credits for childcare expenses. In addition, families where one parent is a student or where one parent is in the military may be eligible for certain types of assistance paying for childcare. Some childcare centers even offer sliding scale fees for families in need of assistance, so it can be worth asking if centers that appeal to your family have any such fee options.
  • Be the early bird: The sooner you can get started on this part of the process, the better. Depending on the demand for childcare in your area, even if you start your search early, you may still find yourself putting your name down on waitlists.
  • Give it a try: Your first choice for childcare may not be the one you decide to go with in the long-term. Research should be a key element of your decision, but there’s no way to know for sure if your choice of childcare will work for your family until you actually try it out. In all likelihood, you’ve chosen the option that will work best for your family, but stay open to the possibility that it may end up not being exactly what you expected. If this happens, you’ll want to try to find something new. Talk to your partner, family, or friends about what a backup childcare plan might look like if something about your initial plan doesn’t go quite the way you were expecting it to.

If you’re considering a daycare center

Whether you’re looking at daycare centers or interviewing nannies, you’re going to be asking a lot of the same questions. Namely, “Will my baby be safe, happy, and healthy in this place and with this person when I’m not with them?” But the strategy you use to figure out whether you’ve found the right fit will be different depending on what kind of care you’re considering.

Parents looking at daycare centers as their main source of childcare have an opportunity that parents interviewing nannies do not. Daycares usually offer parents the chance to observe a class and see what it’s like while it’s in progress. If you do this, check the ratio of caregivers to children – centers give parents official numbers, but getting to look at those numbers in action can make a big difference to how you end up feeling about them.

Check to see if the daycare center is certified, which means it’s required to meet certain standards. In some states, daycare and childcare centers that are affiliated with religious institutions aren’t required to meet certification standards. This doesn’t mean that centers affiliated with religious institutions can’t be great choices for your family, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Other good questions to ask when visiting a daycare center include:

  • What does an infant’s day here generally look like? What about an older baby or a toddler?
  • Where does naptime happen?
  • How big are class sizes, and how wide a range of different ages are in one class?
  • How flexible is your schedule, and do you charge extra for late pickup?
  • What is your holiday schedule?
  • Can I see your license and any other certification you might have, including CPR or first aid?
  • Can I bring Baby in for a visit before enrolling them?

If you’re considering an individual care provider

When you’re talking to a nanny or other individual care provider, you probably won’t have the option to watch them interact with other children on the job before they meet Baby, so testimonials are generally the next best thing. Getting referrals from friends, relatives, or coworkers is a great way to get a sense of what a care provider might be like.

You can also ask for references from former employers as a way of getting a sense of how other families have felt about that care provider. And since Baby can help with the interview process too, you might want to plan a trial day of care – a test run of sorts – where the potential provider can care for your little one while you’re at home, just to see if it’s a good fit for all parties.

Good questions to ask during the interview process include:

  • How do you communicate with parents? And how would you like to handle feedback as we figure out the best way to collaborate on taking care of Baby?
  • Do you feed on demand or follow a schedule? And how strictly do you follow nap schedules?
  • What are your policies around sickness?
  • Do you have any emergency training? And how up-to-date is it?
  • What’s your overall philosophy about childcare?

Having a backup plan

One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of choosing childcare is the fear that you might choose wrong – and it’s entirely possible that once Baby is actually being cared for by someone other than you, you might not feel totally comfortable with your choice. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a sense of how flexible your chosen childcare might be – and why it’s also helpful to have a backup plan in mind. This might be a relative who works from home and might be able to watch your little one in a pinch or a childcare agency that accepts last-minute requests.

Options like this may not be your first choice, and in a perfect world, you won’t need them. But if you do end up feeling like your current childcare option isn’t working out and you need something to bridge the gap until you find something new – or even just if you need last-minute sick-day help – it will be much more reassuring to already have an idea of where you can turn.

Signs that your childcare of choice might not be working for you and that you should keep an eye out for include:

  • Dropping by your childcare center unexpectedly and noticing that the child-to-caregiver ratio is higher than you’d been told it would be.
  • A center or caregiver that introduces discipline and punishment concepts to children too young to understand them (like babies and very young toddlers).
  • An unsafe or hazardous environment.
  • A shortage of napping space, babies put to sleep in car seats, or babies who are put down to nap in any way other than on their backs, alone, and on a firm crib mattress with no bedding other than a tightly-fitted sheet.
  • Sick children being cared for in the childcare center, instead of being sent home.
  • TV-watching for young children, or a lack of chances to explore safely and play in educational ways.
  • If you feel uncomfortable dropping Baby off at a center or leaving Baby at home with a caregiver. It’s hard for many parents to start leaving young children in the care of others, but if that uneasy feeling sticks around or gets worse, it may be a sign that the childcare set-up you have isn’t the right fit for your family.

The emotional factor

Again, it can be really difficult to start dropping Baby off at childcare or leave them at home under another person’s care – and that difficulty is a totally healthy, normal response to what is a really big change for your family. It’s helpful to keep in mind that, even if you’re totally confident in your decision, you might find yourself feeling grief, sadness, or even jealousy of your child’s other caregivers, who get to see them when you don’t. Having these feelings is normal and doesn’t mean you’re making the wrong choice.

On the other hand, it’s just as normal to not feel this grief, or to even feel a certain amount of relief – plenty of new parents are happy to go back to work, especially new parents who are passionate about their jobs. More than that, it’s normal to enjoy getting a little space now and then – especially after engaging in 24/7 baby care during parental leave – and being at work can be a great reminder of parts of yourself that you may have lost track of in the whirlwind early days of parenting.

  • Karen Stephens. “Infant Child Care: Heed These Warning Signs.” Parenting Exchange. Exchange Press, 2007. Retrieved July 25 2017.
  • “5 Steps to Choosing Child Care.” Child Care Aware. Child Care Aware. Retrieved 25 July 2017.
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