The day after my daughter Sophie was born, I started calling licensed daycare centres to inquire about space in a year’s time. In Toronto, you’re supposed to cross this task off the list pretty much the moment the second line appears on the pregnancy test, but with my history of anxiety (and my family’s Italian superstition), I just couldn’t do it that early. Exhausted, holding my newborn in my arms, I heard “the waiting list is currently 18 months long” over and over. (There are only enough licensed spots for 20 percent of Canadian children, even though 46 percent of families need some sort of daily care, outside of having family members to pitch in. Licensed spaces are at a premium.) But I put her on the lists anyway, and my husband and I started to research private at-home daycares as alternatives.
After touring a handful of homes and checking more than a few references, we found a fit. The proprietor was a young mom of two who had leased a second apartment in her building to run a centre-like home daycare. She had just three full-time kids in addition to her own. The daycare was cozy and clean, and she showed us program plans that included her policies, the menu and daily outings to neighbourhood parks and attractions. She provided police record checks for herself and her husband, as well as her part-time staff member. She offered flexible and drop-in hours, plus evening babysitting (with enough notice). I wondered why we’d even considered a larger place to begin with.
About six months after putting down a deposit to hold Sophie’s spot, we got an email: The daycare was expanding and moving to a larger facility down the street. I went to tour the new location and was pleased to see it was brighter and more spacious than the little apartment. Sophie started daycare at 11 months and seemed happy there. But over the next few years, the care started to change. The proprietor took on quite a few more children and opened a second location next door, and while she hired staff to cover ratios, she averaged the total number of children rather than adhering to age requirements; she also didn’t seem to be moving toward becoming licensed despite bending private at-home daycare rules. By the time our second kid arrived, we felt more and more uncomfortable, and knew it was time to move on—Sophie was headed to junior kindergarten anyway. Luckily we found a spot for baby Juliette in a newly opened licensed centre.
At first, I was uneasy about the size of the new centre—60 kids—and missed the intimacy of the smaller operation, as well as the flexibility: The at-home daycare would give ibuprofen to a teething babe or allow a kid to come back to daycare as soon as a fever had broken (rather than requiring a 24-hour wait). The rules at Juliette’s daycare are hard and fast—if you’re even five minutes late for pickup, it’s documented and you’re charged a late fee. I’m presented with an accident report to sign for every tiny bump and bruise—but I also know this means ratios are being met correctly, there’s government oversight and procedures are followed. Juliette has had a rotation of teachers as she’s aged out of infant care and into the toddler room, which can be disappointing after we’ve developed a rapport with each staff member, but they’re all lovely, qualified caregivers. I also love that Jules watches the older kids in the preschool room and wants to mimic their behaviour (at 20 months, she’s already showing an interest in the potty).
Kara Hall, who runs Tiny Hands Home Daycare in Cambridge, Ont., explains that choosing a daycare provider is a personal decision, with many factors. “Most of the parents who bring their children to me want a one-on-one relationship with their provider, a sort of extension of their family,” she says. “It’s difficult to get that in a large facility.” But Hall also recognizes the benefits of the centre set-up. All three of her own kids have attended half-day nursery-school programs. “I love the centre atmosphere for teaching kids to function in large groups, in preparation for school. There are definitely pros and cons to each, and neither decision is wrong.”
Where do you start? Begin by simply asking other families in your town or neighbourhood what they do for child care. Local moms’ groups or message boards, parent-run Facebook groups and old-school playground chats can expose you to daycare providers you may have never heard about. Many public schools also have affiliated child-care centres worth checking out (there’s often a wait-list). Depending on the size of your town or city, there may be a municipal search engine that lets you know where the nearest daycares are. Also check out six helpful sites and apps here.
A version of this article appeared in our Summer 2016 issue with the headline, "Choosing between a larger daycare centre and a smaller home daycare," p. 67.
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