About a month ago, my husband and I re-evaluated our finances and decided that we just couldn’t keep paying $1000/month for part-time daycare. I was very bummed about it, as I loved our previous provider. (It was a center with fantastic teachers, director and a wonderful, sweet group of kids.) However, it was getting harder and harder to justify spending that much money for 3 days a week of care and no flexibility. If I needed to be at work on Friday, when I usually work from home and mind Isla, I had no way of simply paying for an extra day of care and dropping Isla off on my way into the office. Changing providers had to happen, even though it was very difficult and upsetting for me to switch from people I was so comfortable with and had absolute trust in.
I didn’t even really know where to begin looking to find care, though. I asked around the office to other people with kids and got a referral to one care provider in the area. However, when I contacted her, she let me know she was at her limit for infants and couldn’t take Isla. My only other friends in the Portland area live on the other side of the river, and we can’t commute 40+ minutes just to drop Isla off at daycare when I live 5 minutes from work.
I went to the internet to solve my problems. (Of course.) Craigslist was a little too shady for me, though, and Angie’s List was useless. I lucked out and stumbled upon Care.com. You have to pay to post a listing to find a provider, but I was really pleased with the volume of responses I received to my listing, with the resume template on Care.com for care providers, and with the messaging system, which I used to weed out unsuitable candidates. You can also run a background check and check references through the site.
After narrowing down our selection to 2, I met with both in person at their homes. (A little scary, but I have a check-in system with my husband so hopefully I don’t end up chopped up in someone’s freezer.) It was very nice to be able to see the places where Isla would be all day long, meet the providers’ kids, and get a sense of what their family life is like. With one, Kellen, Isla and I all went, so we were able to see how the care provider would actually interact with our child.
In the end, we picked a provider who actually lives just a few blocks away from our old day care center, which means we didn’t have to change up our routine too much. She, her husband, and her youngest daughter all really clicked with Isla. She was happy as a clam being around them, which made me happy to see. I think babies are like dogs–they can sense character. The home was very clean, safe, and inviting. Plus, the pay was more in line with what I was hoping for.
I will say, I had a much harder time leaving Isla in someone else’s home than I did in taking her to a center. The center we took her to was very open, with windows everywhere, and parents in and out. I could (and did) stop in at any time, and if my drop-in visits weren’t enough proof that the daycare did what they said they would do, there was photographic evidence of what goes on in the daycare center on a daily basis everywhere. I never doubted that their curriculum was just for show (a problem at a far more upscale and expensive daycare in our area), because I could see firsthand what was going on in every classroom, and there were photos and actual products from the activities they did all over the place.
If you are looking for daycare for your child, here are some tips:
1. Decide what kind of care you want. You can go to a big center, an in-home daycare center, an in-home provider who only watches one or two children, or have an in-house nanny. Please note, if you are planning to use an FSA to cover your daycare, you need to make sure your provider is okay with giving you either a tax ID number for their business or their social. You’ll also probably need to work out a receipt system with them, if they don’t already have one.
There are positives and negatives with each of these different types of care. Big centers often provide more rigorous curriculum, but also are germ factories and more expensive. In-home daycare centers are often less expensive, but have a higher student to teacher ratio. An in-home provider can give a real personal experience, but they often aren’t educated in childhood development and may not be as knowledgeable about different parenting methods or creating a “curriculum.” A nanny is nice because they work in your house, only with your child, and can even help out with household tasks (laundry, cooking, cleaning), but you have to pay taxes, which adds around 20% to the cost of care and requires extra paperwork at tax time. Hiss boo.
2. Know what questions to ask. The questions can vary depending on the type of care you go with, but there are a few key areas to touch upon:
- Consistency. If you’re talking about a daycare center, you should ask about turnover rates. For in-home providers, you should ask how long they’ve worked for previous clients. If you hear about high turnover rates, or it seems like the provider has had a stream of kids in and out, those should be red flags.
- Qualifications. How much experience does the provider have? Do they have an education in childhood development? Do they have experience dealing with x care situations that you know, knowing your child, may come up in the course of your child’s care.
- Milestones and development. If you want your care provider to be providing some sort of curriculum to help your baby/child meet developmental milestones or learn new skills, it’s good to find out now how familiar they are with general childhood milestones and development. Do they have experience with: introducing solids, sleep training, developing physical milestones, potty training, language development, etc.? Find out how they would help you if it turns out your child has delays in any area. For large daycare centers, be sure they’d be willing to work with any specialists or doctors you may speak to regarding your child’s development. For in-home providers, be sure they’re willing to help your child overcome any delays by diligently adhering to the advice of any doctors or specialists you consult.
- Environment. This only applies if you’re going with care outside your home, but this should be pretty immediately obvious when you do a site visit. Is it clean? Is it safe? What kind of child proofing have they done? If it’s a big center, are there security measures in place to ensure a stranger isn’t going to walk out with your baby? How often do communal toys, high chairs, etc. get cleaned? Is it a space conducive to learning, if that’s one of your goals for your child? Also, look for evidence that they do what they say they do. In a big facility, there should be lots of pictures and/or videos and class projects visible. You should see at least some of the activities listed in their curriculum being carried out as you walk past the classrooms. This can be harder to measure if you’re talking about an in-home provider who doesn’t watch many kids, so be sure to ask lots of questions. (More details on that below.)
- How many kids? This is a really important question to ask for two reasons: 1) you want to make sure your kid is going to get enough individual attention, and 2) germs. Find out how many other kids your daycare provider watches and their ages. Most facilities or in-home daycare centers have strict laws on student to teacher ratios and age groups, but it’s good to follow up and ask to make sure they’re actually following the rules. With in-home providers, knowing the ages of the other kids can be just as important as the numbers. In one scenario, I had a woman contact me to watch Isla, and she mentioned she only had one other child she watches–her own 6 week old newborn. Did I feel comfortable that my 4-month-old, who is young enough to still need A LOT of individual attention, was going to get the amount of attention she needs in a home with a brand new mom with a brand new baby? Nope. Regardless, you should keep in mind the more kids a person watches, the more likely it is your kid is going to get sick. Isla spent the first 6 weeks in daycare getting sick every other week. Not only was she not sleeping, she was also passing along her germs to us. A house full of exhausted, sick people is not a happy one.
- References. Follow up with references. Call parents who have used this provider before. Talk to other parents at the facility. Talk to the other kids at the daycare/provider’s home, or at the very least, look at how they react to their providers/teachers. If the parents and kids both are happy, it should be a good sign that something is right. If the parents or the kids seem apprehensive or unhappy, RUN, don’t walk.
- A day in the life. Find out what a day with a potential provider would be like. If possible, spend a day with them, or at least a few hours, and get a feel for how they handle things. If not, have them walk you step by step through what they’d do in the course of a normal day. If they ask what your schedule is like and say they’ll try to stick with whatever you’re doing, bonus points for them.
- Discipline. This is more for parents of older children, but this is another important thing to find out. How do they handle discipline? Again, it should be pretty consistent with what you’re doing at home OR you should all find a way to get on the same page so your child experiences consistency across the board.
- Supplies. Find out what you’ll need to supply and what your daycare supplies on their own. Diapers, wipes, food, toys, bouncers, car seats, etc. With our old daycare center, we basically just brought in diapers, a change of clothes and bottles. With our new daycare provider, we have to bring those things plus a diaper pail, car seat, bouncer and blankets. We’ll also have to supply a high chair eventually.
There are other things you might want to check on that are specific to your family. In my case, we had to ask about whether the care providers would be willing to use cloth diapers. You may not be comfortable with your daycare provider taking your child on long walks around the neighborhood or on drives in their car. Think about all the possible scenarios which might make you uncomfortable or which might be unique to your family (for instance, religious dietary restrictions and holidays, flexible schedules if your work hours aren’t reliable, etc.)
3. Think about taxes and finances. Daycare ain’t cheap, and finding the right care provider within your budget can be a significant challenge. Don’t be afraid to bargain. Even big daycare centers can usually bring down their stated price to help out families sometimes, and in-home providers often have a flexible range. Try to find a price that works for you both.
Taxes are another important consideration. If you are getting care in your home, note that to be on the up and up, you probably need to pay taxes. Here is some information on the rules surrounding nannies and taxes. You can figure out and handle the taxes on your own, or you can go through a service like 4NannyTaxes.com to handle it for you. If you choose to do it on your own, GTM payroll services has an excellent calculator to help you determine how much you should be paying over and above your nanny’s salary into taxes.
Another thing to think about is getting a tax break for your childcare. You may qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Credit or want to use a Dependent Care Flex Spending Account, but note you can’t do both. If you’re not sure which to do, there is some helpful info here. You can also use this calculator to help you determine which is a better value for your family.
4. Have a back-up. Even big daycare centers occasionally shut down for holidays. With in-home providers, you may have to work around illnesses, vacations, special events, or their older children’s extracurricular schedules. It’s important to have someone else you can take your kid to if your regular provider closes for a holiday you don’t have off or if the sitter is taking off for a week to go to Disney World.
Photo courtesy Emily Goodstein