Ask Sally: How To Choose The Right Childcare Option

Shot of a mother holding her baby girl at home

Day care? Home caregiver? Family member(s)? Choosing who will care for your baby once parental leave is over is one of the biggest and most difficult decisions new parents will make. Sally Tannen, Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center, offers advice to help you prepare.

Q: My partner and I felt sure we wanted an in-home caretaker for our first child once my maternity leave ended. But now we’re having doubts, thinking day care may be the better option. What are your thoughts?

A: There is no best option; there is only the better option for you and your partner. Choosing childcare is a very personal decision. Some parents like the idea of more eyes than fewer watching their child, and an environment that is more structured and social. Others want the control and focus of a single chosen individual and prefer that their baby remains at home. Other considerations include thinking about what daily life will be like with each option. Are you and your partner ready to handle the added stress of getting your baby fed, dressed and ready for day care every morning while getting ready for work yourselves? Are you willing to take on the administrative tasks that go along with hiring a nanny, such as tax issues, arranging for back-up care if/when she calls in sick, etc. And, of course, cost is a factor. Most importantly, you and your partner need to be on the same page, so talk the options through frankly and from all perspectives.

The takeway: Choosing child care is a highly personal decision and what is “right” for one family may not be right for yours. Be honest about what matters most to you and your partner and let that guide you.

Q: Our baby is 2 months old, and my husband and I are beginning our search for a caregiver. What is your best advice to help us through the process?

A: I always suggest that a couple begins with making a list of everything you would want in this person. Is it important to you that your caregiver can be flexible with hours? Do you want someone with many years of experience? Do you want someone energetic and who will be very active with your child? Is it essential that she has been trained in CPR? Do you have a pet? If yes, you want someone who is comfortable with that. Make a list specific to your wants and needs, then prioritize it. When you have your top priorities, address the first five in phone calls with people you might be interested in, so no one wastes their time with what would be dealbreakers during in-person interviews.

How do you go about finding your prospects in the first place? Established websites, word-of-mouth and on-line new parent groups are generally your best resources. But a lot comes down to going with your gut, and certainly not going against it. Your best friend or sister-in-law may offer a glowing recommendation, but you and your husband have your own set of expectations, your own personalities and your own unique child.

When it comes time to conduct interviews, ask open-ended questions, including about the caregiver’s experience working with the last family that employed her. What did she like? What didn’t she like? What was her average work day like? Her responses will be very telling. And observe her behavior. Did she engage with your baby? Did you feel good about her manner?

You’ll want at least two references for anyone you are considering hiring and will likely also want to run a background check. You’ll need your prospective caregiver’s permission (along with driver’s license number and address history) to do so, but your request won’t be unexpected, and any prospective caregiver should be willing to provide this kind of information. From there, there are established websites that can run a check, and you can also vet directly through DMV and NSOPW.

And my personal advice: While it’s more than fine if your caregiver speaks another language, I urge you to hire someone who is very comfortable speaking and understanding English. This person will be caring for your baby, traveling the city with him, taking him to classes/activities, communicating with you (and your child), and needs to be able to navigate any potential emergency.

Finally, once you have found the caregiver for you and have agreed on basic terms—hours, pay, vacation and sick day arrangements, perhaps you’ll be providing a MetroCard or cell phone—write everything up, keep a copy and give one to your caregiver. And plan as much time together as possible in the week or so before you go back to work so you can grow comfortable with leaving your baby in her care.

The takeway: There is much to consider and explore in choosing a caregiver for your baby. Start with your own (and your partner’s) very individual priorities and be methodical and thorough in your process. And be comforted that everyone feels overwhelmed, and everyone finds a solution.

Q: My wife and I are about to make our final choice regarding a day care center for our new baby. We think we’ve covered the obvious bases, but what are some things we may not have thought to consider?

A: It sounds like you’ve addressed the critical logistics, and hopefully have narrowed your search to a center close to either home or office, worked out who will do drop off, who will do pick up, etc. And you’ve likely observed the center’s basic operations and like what you learned and felt about the daily schedule, level of engagement and a host of other things. To answer your question, while you’re not signing on for a lifetime appointment, you and your wife may understandably be thinking simply “baby care,” and may want to consider that this could be your child’s daily care environment for the next two or three years. It would be worth knowing about the center’s activities with toddlers. Where do they go to the playground? Are you comfortable with where your child will be running around? What kind of activities are introduced and encouraged? What you need and want from your child’s care will be different when she’s 18 months old than from when she is an infant. Questions such as these shouldn’t derail you now, but you may want to consider them as you make your choice.

The takeway: As new parents, you need the assurance that you are choosing the child care that feels best and makes the most sense for you now. Ideally, you will begin a relationship that will continue for several years, and so choosing a scenario that would also be a good fit with a toddler is a bonus. But you can always change your situation as your situation changes!

Director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and new Grandparents Center, Sally Tannen has been supporting early childhood parents, building community, and creating and offering activities and classes for babies, kids, parents and grandparents for thousands of NYC families for more than 25 years. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Sally’s personal experience continues to enrich and inform her work. To learn more about the 92Y, visit 92y.org!