Should you choose daycare? How to find the childcare that’s right for your baby—and you

Childcare is essential if you plan on going back to work after mat leave. Asking yourself these four questions can help you make your daycare decision

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Even if your baby isn’t even here yet, it’s already time to start thinking about daycare.

Yes, it’s true. It’s never too early to be thinking about who will fill arguably the most essential role in your baby’s life after that of you and your partner, especially if you’re returning to work after the standard 12 weeks of leave. Big city or small, no matter where you live, it’s never too early to survey the childcare scene, look at your options, and if necessary, get on a waitlist—especially when you consider that on any given week more than 60 percent of US children under the age of five are in some sort of regular care, according to the United States Census.

Childcare can come in many forms, starting with a family caregiver. But for those of not lucky enough to have a willing grandparent to tap, what route should you choose? Center-based daycare with many kids? Family-based care with fewer children? Nanny or live-in au pair for one-on-one private care?

Childcare comes in so many varieties because every family’s needs are different, and there are trade-offs for each option. Only you will know what’s right for you and your child. To help you narrow down your options, here are four key questions to consider:

What will my child need?
Both of my children attended a small childcare center from the time they were babies until they were ready for preschool. On the pro side, they both made friends that are still in their lives (and we parents did too). That said, not every child will enjoy the hustle and bustle of a roomful of kids, or will settle down for a nap amid distraction. Meanwhile, some daycare centers won’t take babies at all, making that option a nonstarter for your young family.

A prime benefit of one-on-one care—as in a nanny or au pair—is the ability to keep your child at home, in his own quiet bed during naptime, and among his books and toys (bonus: less packing up for you). Know, however, that as your child grows, you’ll likely see added costs if you opt to sign him up for classes like music or other organized playgroups for socializing.

What will your schedule be?
Do your work hours change unexpectedly? Do you and your partner typically work outside a traditional 9 to 5 shift? Will you have to travel for work? Say yes to any of these questions and you’ll likely want to cross the typical daycare center off your list. That’s because while caregiver reliability, curriculum and (often) a lower cost can be found at a center, the combination will come at the expense of rigid operating hours.

The nanny or au pair route will likely be expensive but can be better tailored to your family’s needs. An added bonus: one-to-one care can lower your child (and your family’s) risk for illness and allow your baby to develop a long-term bond with a caregiver.

Stressed woman sitting at her desk with her laptop I want to be a mother for more than just one hour a dayWhat do I want?
Even with all the benefits of one-on-one caregiving, when making the choice for our family, there was one thing my husband and I knew for certain: We didn’t want to be an employer. For us, having to handle a caregiver’s hiring, scheduling, pay and backup when sick was too much for our overwhelmed new-working-parent brains to handle.

Instead, we opted for a network of home-based centers that offered small group care for similar-aged children as well as a consistent and trained team of caregivers that we (and our babies) relied on and learned from, especially with baby number one.

That said, my husband and I did envy families who had the flexibility (and support) of a nanny or au pair for their family, some of whom also prepared dinner and handled other chores as well. Sprinting home to pick up our kids on time could be more stressful than I like to remember but for us it was a price we chose to pay to know that we had reliable care everyday.

How much will it cost?
Let’s get real: In many parts of the country, your childcare costs may rival a college tuition bill—without the benefit of a scholarship or student loan to help defray the cost. Be honest about your budget and consider it upfront as your decide what will work best for your family.

Unless you can talk a grandparent or other trusted family member into offering a bit of free care (pleeeeeaaaase?!) know that your bill is going to be terribly, horribly, shockingly expensive—I’m speaking from experience here. Even so, if you know going back to work is the right call for you, I encourage you to think of the costs in much the same terms of your long-ago college tuition bill. Consider it an investment in your future as a working parent as you move up in your career to better support your family.

Once you figure out what you can afford, trust your gut. If your initial caregiving choice doesn’t feel right—or your needs change—know that it’s ok to switch things up. Some people try a few different childcare solutions until they hit upon the one that suits their family best.

No matter what route you choose, you deserve a caregiver who makes you feel secure about having your child in their care and helps your baby grow into a happy healthy child. Accept nothing less.

Read more:
How to prepare your baby for daycare

Questions to ask on your daycare tour

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