By Stacy Whitman
It may be the hardest (and most important) parenting decision you’ll ever make: who to entrust with the care of your little one while you’re at work, tackling your mile-long to-do list or grabbing some “me” time. There are many factors to consider—first and foremost, your child’s safety. But at this pivotal time in his development—when his brain is growing rapidly and he’s learning to talk, feeling endlessly curious and testing his boundaries—it’s also crucial that his caregiver understand kids his age, make him feel loved and secure, and encourage him to learn and explore. From day care centers and family child care to nannies and au pairs, each arrangement has its pluses and minuses. To determine which one best suits your family, think about your budget, your schedule, your lifestyle and your child’s temperament.
Once you’ve decided on the type of child care you want, it’s time to do some homework. Call around for recommendations. Meet every potential caregiver face-to-face. Ask lots of questions (click here for our handy list). Check all references. Finally, listen to your instincts. If you get a bad vibe (let’s say a caregiver seems too pushy or won’t look you in the eye), keep looking. It isn’t worth taking a chance—and Mommy really does know best.
NEXT: WEIGHING YOUR OPTIONS
Weighing Your Options
A Day Care Center
These licensed businesses typically care for 12 or more kids and employ multiple caregivers. Because they’re open long hours and don’t close when a staff member falls ill or takes a vacation, they can be very dependable. Being around lots of children can mean lots of stimulation for your toddler. But it can also mean lots of germs—so you can count on your little one getting sick frequently. Another factor to consider is that your child may not get as much individual attention at a day care center as he would with family or in-home care.
Different states have different standards for day care centers; some are better than others. Most states require day care centers to be licensed, inspected annually and meet minimum health, safety and caregiver training standards.
What to look for
*A stimulating environment with lots of activities and room to explore
*Clean, tidy conditions (be sure to inspect the changing table!)
*Energetic, enthusiastic and loving caregivers who talk to kids at their eye level
*Trained staff, preferably with credentials such as a child development associate (CDA) or a BA degree in early childhood education
*Caregivers assigned to specific children for greater continuity of care
*A fenced-in outdoor play area with varied and safe equipment
*Accreditation by organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association of Child Care Professionals
*Frequent staff turnover—it could be a sign of poor management and mean a lack of consistency for the kids
*A director or staff that is unresponsive and doesn’t make an effort to answer all your questions
NEXT: FAMILY CHILD CARE
Family Child Care
If you like the sound of a small group of children with one regular caregiver, then family child care could be for you. Care is provided at the caregiver’s residence and may include between two and ten kids, depending on their ages and state laws. Some parents believe kids feel more secure in a homey environment. With fewer children, your toddler will have less exposure to viruses. However, unless the caregiver has an assistant or lines up a replacement, you’ll be stuck when she takes a sick day or goes on vacation. Since family care providers typically work unsupervised, there is no system of checks and balances. And many states don’t require as much training for caregivers working in this scenario as they do for those in day care centers.
Most states require family care providers supervising four or more non-relative children to be registered or licensed. But only half of all states inspect them annually, 27 states require comprehensive background checks, 17 states require a check on the sex offender registry and 40 states insist on formal training. For family providers with fewer than four kids, the regulation process is often voluntary. Bottom line: Don’t assume that that a care provider has had a full background check, fingerprinting, special training or inspections, even if they’re licensed.
What to look for
*A warm, kind and patient caregiver who has childrearing views similar to yours
*A bright, clean, safe environment with lots of toys, books and art supplies
*A safe, fenced-in area for outdoor play
*A current registration or license, inspection report and background checks for all adults who would be in contact with your child
*Accreditation by the National Family Child Care Association (nafcc.org)
*A caregiver without special training in early childhood education or current first aid and CPR certifications
*No written policies and procedures for emergencies, illnesses and discipline
*A “no drop-ins” policy for parents
Having a caregiver come to your home (or live with you) to help dress, feed, read to and potty train your little one sounds heavenly. You won’t have to shuttle your child to and from day care or pack him a lunch. Your toddler will get undivided attention and probably fewer colds. Some nannies will perform light housework. But good help doesn’t come cheap: You might have to spend double or even triple what you would for group care. You’ll also need to get an employer ID and pay taxes, and worker’s compensation insurance is a good idea, too. Managing an employee can be stressful and time-consuming. If your nanny calls in sick or quits suddenly, you could be strapped. And unless you install a nanny cam, you’ll never really know what happens while you’re out.
Many nanny agencies screen candidates, verify references and conduct criminal background checks. If you aren’t using an agency, be sure to do it on your own.
What to look for
*A nanny with beliefs similar to your own about discipline, scheduling, nutrition and other key issues
*Strong experience or background in early childhood education, as well as current certifications in first aid and CPR
*A valid driver’s license, a clean driving record and a fully insured vehicle, if she’s going to be driving your tyke
*Good interaction with your child (if you meet her and think she’s a good candidate, do a working interview in which she takes care of your toddler while you observe from afar)
*A caregiver who isn’t fluent in the same language as you
*A personality that’s too intense or doesn’t seem nurturing
*A lack of agility or energy that would make it difficult for her to keep up with a toddler
NEXT: AU PAIR
An Au Pair
If you have a spare bedroom and an interest in exposing your child to another culture, then an au pair could be a good, affordable option. These young foreign nationals will help with child care (up to 10 hours a day or 45 hours a week) and some housework in return for room and board plus weekly and education stipends that—along with a program fee (which includes screening, medical/liability insurance, a work visa, airfare and some training)—amount to less than $350 a week. The arrangement typically lasts one year, though your au pair could apply to extend her visit for six to twelve more months. Either way, your child will have to part with her after a year or two. Another catch: You probably won’t get to meet your au pair in person before you sign on the dotted line (though you will conduct phone or web cam interviews).
To screen candidates, most au pair agencies will conduct an interview, call references, do a background check and sometimes require a doctor’s visit and psychometric test. If your child is 24 months or younger, the au pair must have at least 200 hours of documented child care experience with a little one before being placed in your home.
What to look for
*An au pair whose personality, interests and cleanliness mesh with your family’s
*Someone with a good work ethic
*At least eight months of driving experience and a clean driving record
*An au pair who doesn’t show much interest in your family or children during the phone interview
*Someone who can’t clearly articulate why she wants to be an au pair
*A language barrier or difficulty communicating
*A smoker if you’re a nonsmoking family and concerned about second- or third-hand smoke (agencies usually screen for this, but sometimes do accept smokers)
NEXT: HIT THE WEB FOR HELP
Hit the Web for Help
Whether you want to learn more about a care provider or do a background check, the Internet can be an invaluable resource. Here are some helpful sites:
Child Care Aware: On this Web site, you can type in your zip code to find the closest Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agency, which can give referrals to local care providers and details on state licensing requirements and financial assistance. Or read up on the different types of child care, then use a free online tool to determine your child care budget.
National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care: Find links to state licensing and regulation info, and the government offices that handle them.
National Family Care Association: Get the scoop on family child care or search for nationally accredited family care providers in your area.
International Nanny Association: Check out the INA’s directory of nanny placement agencies, articles on payroll taxes and nanny cams, or purchase a detailed Nanny/Family Work Agreement.
Care.com: Do a limited free search, or pay $35 for a month for full access to this database of babysitters and nannies (background checks and references included).
NEXT: BABYSITTER 411
After exhaustive research, you’ve found a trustworthy person to watch your tot while you’re at work or on a badly needed date night. Hooray! But before you hurry out the door, make sure that your child’s caregiver knows everything she needs to, can reach you if she has a problem and is prepared in the event of an emergency, says Pat Cascio, president of Morningside Nannies placement agency in Houston and past-president of the International Nanny Association. Take a few minutes to type up a list of important info and contact numbers.
For starters, offer details on your little darling. Does he have any medical problems? Allergies? Favorite foods, books or songs? Does he live for Thomas the Tank Engine? Adore his blankie? Is he terrified of dogs? Write it all down! The more your sitter understands about your child, the better care she’ll be able to provide. Remember to tell her about any medications he’s taking and not to give him any other drug without your consent.
While you’re gone, everything is sure to go off without a hitch. But just in case, provide work and cell numbers for both you and your baby’s daddy. Note exactly where you’ll be and when you plan to return. Jot down contact info for both a neighbor and a close relative. Include instructions on what to do in an emergency, the location of first aid supplies and a fire extinguisher in your home, and a written, signed statement giving your child’s caregiver permission to act on your behalf in a medical emergency. (For a regular nanny, au pair or babysitter, ideally this document should be notarized and put on file at your pediatrician’s office and your local hospital.) Also supply: your home address, your child’s full name and date of birth, your pediatrician’s name and phone number, the name of your preferred local hospital and its location, a copy of your child’s health insurance ID card, the Poison Help hotline number and a fire evacuation route. Last, but not least, be sure to leave your babysitter a house key, tell her where to find a spare key or tell her the code to your garage door so she can’t get locked out.
With three kids under age 5, writer Stacy Whitman feels like she runs her own day care center at home in Sun Valley, Idaho, but she has tried a nanny and day care in the past and was happy with both.
Use our guide to find the next best thing to you.