How to Choose the Right Childcare for Your Family When Returning To Work:
Congratulations! You’re a new parent! And … you’re headed back to work soon. (Ugh.) Moreover, if you’re like most of my readers, you live in the United States – the only major industrialized nation without guaranteed paid parental leave. Which means you’re now scrambling to figure out your back to work childcare options for your weeks-old newborn.
Or perhaps your bundle of joy hasn’t arrived yet, and you’re trying to plan ahead for what to do when that little one comes home with you. But you’re already realizing that not only is the U.S. way behind the curve on paid parental leave, it’s also way behind other countries in access to affordable child care.
And moving your whole family to one of the countries with the best paid maternity leave plans isn’t in the cards. (Nor, for that matter, is relocating to one of the few U.S. states that mandates paid leave through state law.)
What’s a parent to do?
Until the U.S. catches up with the rest of the industrialized world, this one is on YOU to figure out, parents.
Like many of you, my husband and I once found ourselves trying to figure out how we were going to have two parents working with an infant underfoot. We’ve also watched countless friends, family members, and neighbors try to cobble together their own solutions over time. And it’s neither pretty, nor for the faint of heart.
Hence this post – your ultimate guide to back to work childcare options for parents.
This is a collaboration post. However, please know I stand behind everything written here, and only include links to products/services/resources I’m willing to recommend personally.
Your Guide to Back To Work Child Care Options:
1. Private care in your home (sitter/nanny/au pair)
- This is often one of the most flexible arrangements out there. With a designated special someone to take care of your littles, you always know they’re in good hands.
- And no worries about commuting back and forth, your little one being in a strange place, or having to pack up enough gear for a weekend away each time you leave the house in the morning.
- Plus, you also won’t have to worry about exposing your precious babe to a pile of strange germs from other kids – not quite yet, at least.
- Even if your kiddo is sick, you still have a plan for care.
- Finding that perfect match can be tricky. You want to be sure you’ve done your due diligence when hiring, including background checks and thorough interviews.
- This is often the most expensive option. And if you’re facing paying more than you earn, you have to ask yourself if this is the best option all around.
- Plus, by hiring someone, you’ll need to make sure you do proper payroll accounting for things like their federal and state tax withholding. Which can be a real headache if you don’t work as an accountant or payroll manager already.
- The easiest way to find that “special someone” is through a service. For an example of what I’m talking about, click here for nannies.
- All the parents I know who opted for in-home care from a non-relative have used a professional childcare agency as their “matchmaker.” By working with a reputable agency, you know you’re hiring someone who’s been fully vetted, and often who has both experiences and references. Some agencies may even act as the middleman when it comes to paying your new employee, meaning they’ll take care of payroll tax paperwork for you!
- Even if you do use an agency, though, you’re going to need to be upfront (i.e., clear in your own mind) about what you want/need in order to get the right match. And you’ll still need to do interviews and possible trial sittings.
2. Private care in someone else’s home
- MAY be less costly than going through a service for a private nanny in your own home. (Or may not).
- A good option if you can’t get into a center (more on that below).
- Still pretty flexible overall on most things (scheduling, special requests, etc.); often easier to find than a slot in a licensed facility that’s not someone’s home.
- Depending on whether other children are present, may still be an option even on days when your child is sick.
- Quality can vary widely from one setting to the next.
- The burden is on you to do your due diligence when choosing – from level of experience to background checks.
- And if your kiddo is around other kids, s/he WILL get sick – but does that mean you then can’t drop off your child until they’re healthy again? Most likely, this will be the rule, and you’ll be scrambling for a “plan B.”
- Unless the child care provider has a background/credentials in early childhood education (in which case you can expect to pay more), will your child be receiving any kind of educational benefit from their time there? Or will your sweetie end up spending ten hours per day plunked in front of the TV?
- Again, you’ll have to do the math on whether it’s financially feasible for you to continue to work AND pay for childcare.
- Make a list of things to look for and ask about as you’re investigating your options. Besides experience and adult-to-child ratios, you’re going to want to visually inspect the space yourself. Does it seem clean and neat? Are the toys in good repair? Are appropriate child-proofing measures in place? Does everyone who’ll come into contact with your child have appropriate clearances/background checks?
- Ask about/research what, if any, licensing or credentials are available (or required) for home-based child care centers in your area. Then find out how the one(s) you’re considering measure up, before you commit.
3. A licensed daycare facility
- Such facilities are generally highly regulated at the state and/or local level. It’s easy to tell, by which level credentials and certifications they have, what you’re getting yourself into.
- The better facilities are partially or fully staffed by individuals with certifications and degrees in early childhood education. And many also offer a curriculum/program that blends seamlessly from infant care, to early preschool education, to pre-kindergarten, in some cases right on into kindergarten.
- These facilities may also have options for early-morning drop off, late pickup, and/or other flexible scheduling to make the lives of working parents easier.
- If you’re super-lucky, your employer may have such a facility on-site where you can leave your little one, check in during lunch, etc.
- Depending on where you live, wait lists may be so long that you’ll need to put your names on one before you even get pregnant. Some will also require a substantial nonrefundable enrollment deposit at the same time, just to hold your place in the queue IF something opens up.
- Once you’re enrolled in a program, these centers may be more cost-effective than private care, but will be less flexible about payment options. Meaning you will pay for the number of days/per week specified in your contract, regardless of whether you’re on vacation, your child stays home sick, whatever. So again, run the math and make sure you’re not losing money for the privilege of working (or if you are, that the overall benefits for your career offset those costs) before you commit.
- And remember that if your kiddo is sick, you will be stuck scrambling for a plan B at the last minute, because you won’t be allowed to bring your little one in. (As noted above, I can pretty much guarantee that the first exposure to a new germ pool WILL make your baby sick in short order.)
- These settings often have the most rules and regulations. When we were interviewing childcare facilities, I remember that only one would even consider using the cloth-diapering system we’d already chosen for our family. For most facilities, disposables were all they would allow.
- Start figuring out what waitlist times and overall options are in your area before you even get pregnant.
- Visit every center you’re even remotely considering for at least one visit. And find out what their visitation policy is once your child is enrolled. If they won’t let you visit the facility while children are there/visit the classrooms and see what kids are doing, or if they have a no-unannounced-visits policy once your child is enrolled, take those signals as red flags.
- Make sure you have a list of questions to ask, as well as things to observe during your visits. And bring along a notebook to take notes of how each place scores on the questions you ask, so you don’t have to try to remember which was which (especially if it’s years later that you’re actually making a decision).
- And assuming this facility handles kids at least until they’re old enough to start kindergarten, you need to treat this interview process as if you’re doing site visits for future preschools. Because if your child enrolls at this facility, s/he will most likely be attending preschool there as well as infant daycare. The time to scrutinize their academic programs is NOW, not a few weeks before your baby turns two.
4. Recruiting relatives, neighbors, friends, etc.
- Can be the least expensive option, especially if you can get said relative(s) to care for your little one(s) for free.
- Also super-flexible in many cases – they’ll still come if your child is sick, they can pinch-hit for you during business trips by staying overnight. etc.
- IF you have a group of friends near you with similar childcare needs, you may be able to set up a childcare swap/collective, where you each take turns watching the other’s kids as well as your own. This is also usually inexpensive to free.
- This is a super-fast way to destroy relationships within a family, if all parties aren’t completely upfront about goals and expectations.
- If you don’t have family or close friends who live nearby, you may be screwed. And/or if your nearby relatives are too elderly/frail to be able to care for your child. Let’s face it, you’re asking someone to step in as parent – and a 20-something nanny will be in much better shape for this than a grandparent or great-aunt in their 80s.
- Before you even consider such an arrangement, it’s important to have several frank discussions about what you’re envisioning (and what they’re willing/not willing to do) with the relative(s) in question, in order to avoid misunderstandings.
- Even if you think your relative will politely refuse, you should still offer to pay them for their services. Or if you can’t afford to pay them, perhaps something special like being included in your family’s next winter vacation would be one way to thank them for the huge service they’re providing to you and your little one.
And finally, if you’re lucky enough to be able to swing this,
5. Flex scheduling
- What could be better than not having to pay for childcare one or more days a week? And/or, given our general lack of parental leave in the U.S., actually being around to spend time with your growing baby as they develop during those crucial early years of life?
- Not only that, but you won’t have to worry about your kiddo being too sick to go to childcare! Or paying for days that you don’t use! Let alone all the time it takes to interview providers, or the long waitlists and hefty deposits, or the details of payroll taxes and background checks.
- Being able to pull off something like this requires the cooperation not only of both parents, but also of both parents’ employers. If either one of you has to take periodic out-of-town business trips, or pull long hours/extra shifts on short notice, then this arrangement probably isn’t for you (unless you already have a plan B nailed down).
- Ditto if neither of you can get flex scheduling (four 10-hour days, telecommute one or more days/week, etc.) from your employer.
- Think you can make it work anyway by working a different shift than your spouse/partner? The trade-off is that you’ll never see that person, which can put a huge strain on your relationship. It’s hard to support one another and nurture your relationship if you’re like two ships passing in the night.
- And unless you have a designated home office, clear rules about what happens during “work time,” and a low-key and healthy kiddo, this could be a hard arrangement to pull off.
- The ideal time to investigate flexible working arrangements is when you’re negotiating your contract with your new employer, not after your baby is already born. Both you and your partner need to have this as an option if you’re going to make it work, even as both of you remain employed full-time.
- If you need to try to negotiate a flex arrangement after you’ve already been hired, it helps to do your research. Put together a proposal for your boss or HR professional on how this will benefit your company, by enabling you to continue to perform at peak capacity (and saving the company the time and cost of recruiting and training someone new to fill your shoes) because you don’t have to worry about childcare.
- If flex arrangements aren’t already a given for your place of work, and you’re able to negotiate an exception, make sure you hammer out those details in writing well in advance. Ditto for any plan B’s you need for contingencies. For example: both my brother Evan and his wife Alicia work for the federal government, and have some flexibility to telecommute. So for the first year of my niece Abby’s life, they mostly arranged their work schedules around each other so one of them could always cover Abby, after securing their preferred telecommuting arrangements in writing from their supervisors.
- But on the several occasions when one of them had to travel for work, they would line up either my mama or Alicia’s mama. months in advance, to fly cross-country to help with Abby. (And, I confess, I still do the same with my mama during the weeks I’m putting in long hours at baby consignment sales.)
Have you and your family faced the back-to-work childcare dilemma? If so, where did you end up? Which solution did you choose, and (more importantly) why? Let us know in the comments!
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