Adding a new baby to your family, whether it’s your first or your fifth, is probably life’s most memorable milestone. And of course, along with the excitement and joy comes a long list of to-dos, including the task of identifying the right child care arrangement for your family if you’re heading back to work. There are so many day care centers, nannies, and relatives to choose between, the task can be overwhelming–but should be sorted out as early as possible. Before your baby is born, if possible (Trust us: Your three months of maternity leave will feel more like three weeks). But how do you make this very important and often challenging decision? Here, we weigh the three most popular options to help you choose.
Pros and Cons of Day Care Centers
Pros: One major advantage of day care centers is they are state-licensed and regulated. (The U.S. Administration for Children & Families recommends you ask about a license when you visit.) They offer a structured day for children (yes, even for infants), with outdoor time, naps, meals, and snacks. And caregivers typically have a degree (or are earning one) in early childhood education.
Many parents like the social aspect of day care centers—children are grouped by age, and starting at 2 years old spend the day in a preschool classroom with a real curriculum and progress reports. Plus, a familiar environment from infanthood through kindergarten is appealing. “The social element cannot be overstated,” says Jessica Wertheim, chief learning officer at Dearest Inc., a child care-sharing marketplace based in New York City. “Social-emotional skills that support children’s ability to focus and engage in other classroom environments, manage their own emotions, and socialize well with peers are often taught more directly during day care and preschool than at any other time.”
Cons: The day will come when your baby will have a wet diaper at pick-up, or your child will be given the center-provided snack instead of the special one you bring in every day, no matter how great the caregivers are. If these sorts of instances sound like deal-breakers, this probably isn’t the way to go.
Cost: Due to state-regulated child-to-teacher ratios, the older the child, the lower the cost. Centers have to charge the most for infants, since they are required to hire more people to care for them. That said, day care centers are not cheap. In our area, you’re easily looking at $1,500 a month, if not more, for full-time day care. It can start to get cost prohibitive if a second child comes along and you, naturally, want both your kids in the same place. Also, day care centers charge extra for late pick-up or early drop-off.
Bottom Line: Day care centers can be the right choice for parents with a 9-5 job, who don’t often work late, and prefer a socialized group setting for their child.
Reasons a Nanny Might Work for You
Pros: Nannies (and plenty of mannies!) are committed sitters who enjoy being part of a family and watching their charges grow up. It’s hard to beat the concept of a caring professional utterly dedicated to your child.
Cons: All your eggs are in one person’s basket. Nannies get the flu, wake up to a busted water pipe in their home, have car trouble, and need to take their suddenly-sick cat to the vet like anyone else. When that happens, you’re stuck scrambling. Also, nannies can quit even under the best of circumstances (say, their spouse gets a new job out of state), and depending on the age of your child, this can be a devastating loss.
Cost: Nannies are costly. In our area, parents can expect to pay upwards of $15 an hour for one child, according to payscale.com. As her employer, you need to provide your nanny with disability insurance, and you may need to pay the IRS an employment tax. It’s also expected that you ante up for birthday and holiday gifts, food in the fridge, and paid vacation. Live-in nannies earn a lower salary, but many families don’t have enough space to make that option possible.
Bottom Line: If you can afford it and prize personal attention above all else, this is the way to go.
Family Care Might Be Best
Pros: “Having a relative care for their baby often gives parents a sense of relief,” says Martha Mendez-Baldwin, Ph.D., a psychology of childhood assistant professor at Manhattan College in the Bronx.
Cons: Your mother or mother-in-law may have offered to step in, but as tempting as this alternative may feel, assess the situation realistically. She may not be prepared for the hard work of caring for a newborn. “Is this relative aware of today’s best child care practices? Do they know the safest sleep position is on the baby’s back?” Dr. Mendez-Baldwin asks. Plus, with a relative, you will still have to lay out a few ground rules and make requests about how you want things done, which can create conflict in an already-delicate relationship. You still need a back-up plan for early mornings when the phone call starts with, “I’m so sorry, but…”
Cost: While this could be a free arrangement, you may want to insist on paying your relative to underscore the fact that this is a real responsibility. On the other hand, she might refuse payment, so cost really depends on the individual family.
Bottom Line: If Grandma is energetic, and you have a solid relationship that can withstand honest and open communication, this may be worth considering (especially if money is an issue).
Child care arrangements are a big decision, and there is no one-size-fits-all option, Wertheim says. However, there is no bad option either. “When any adult creates experiences that are personalized and respond to a baby’s interests with enthusiasm, positivity, and warmth, they support that baby’s social and cognitive development,” she says.