Center or Family Day Care?
Infant Care Center vs. Family Daycare
By Elizabeth Heubeck
Like many new moms, I had trouble relinquishing control of my baby to a relative stranger. But work beckoned, and I knew that, sooner than later, I had to find someone to watch my precious bundle in my absence. Because of my flexible work schedule and at-home office, I sought out a student at a local university to provide care in my home. The first candidate I interviewed, though barely 19, impressed me with her confidence and nurturing instinct. As soon as she picked up my fussy newborn, looked into her eyes and began speaking softly to her, I knew she was the one. I hired her on the spot and never regretted it.
But I did have an advantage that many working mothers don’t. Because my office is located in my basement, I could turn up my baby monitor and hear how things were going. It felt a bit like spying, but it did calm my residual doubts. (What if she was a fake and not the sweet and loving babysitter she appeared to be?) When I cranked up the monitor, I heard my daughter cooing in response to the silly babble and nursery rhymes her sitter sang. Eventually, I dropped my eavesdropping sessions. It also helped that my babysitter enthusiastically reported everything the baby did in my absence, from ounces drunk to diapers wet.
While many mothers have probably considered surreptitiously monitoring their infants’ caregivers, it’s not a necessarily practical or fair practice. But you do owe it to yourself and your baby to learn about childcare options available to you and carefully choose the one that’s right for your family. You still may shed a few tears those first few times you leave your infant in someone else’s care, but knowing you made a good choice will ease your separation anxiety.
When should you start looking?
It’s never too early to start looking for child care. Ali*, an occupational therapist and mother of two, began searching for care even before her daughter was conceived. After finding a family day care (a program in which care is provided in the caregiver’s own home) she liked, she signed up and remained on the waiting list for two years. Just as a spot opened, her daughter was born. Had Ali not acted when she did, chances are she would have been scrambling to find something suitable at the last minute.
Not everyone starts her search as far in advance as Ali did, nor does the perfect situation present itself as readily. Amy, a marketing executive and mother of one, recalls beginning her search about six months into her pregnancy. Despite waiting longer than Ali, she thoroughly researched several different possibilities.
“We really looked at our options: family day, nanny, traditional day care,” says Amy.
She also sought out the opinions of others. “I talked to a lot of friends, asked a lot of moms what they had done,” she says.
As her son’s birth grew closer, Amy remained unsettled about a decision.
“I was feeling like there weren’t as many options as I had hoped,” she says.
In the end, she opted for a child care center located next to her office. Her son, now two, is still in the program, and she reports being pleasantly surprised at how well the situation has worked out.
“It’s been great knowing that I’m right there should I need to reach him during the day. The proximity allowed me to nurse that first year during my lunch hour. And I like the time I spend commuting with him,” Amy says.
What’s the difference between child care centers and family day care?
The majority of new moms returning to work place their infants either in child care centers or family day care programs, also referred to as in-home day care. While one isn’t necessarily better than the other, distinct differences do exist between each.
One major difference between these two types of child care is how they group children.
“Family providers take care of mixed age groups; in centers, children are grouped by age,” explains Leslie Bright, corporate service coordinator and trainer for Locate Child Care, an organization that helps parents find child care options for infants and offers training and technical support to childcare providers.
Some parents prefer same-age grouping. One advantage is that it makes age- and developmentally-appropriate care easier to provide. Plus, some caregivers feel more comfortable and adept at caring for infants than children of older ages, whereas a family provider can’t make that choice. “They [family providers] have to provide good care to all ages,” Bright says.
However, others choose family day cares specifically because they do mix age groups. For instance, some parents and children like the fact that siblings of different ages can be together throughout the day. Other parents see advantages to having older children around their infants.
Ali recalls fondly, “The older kids looked after my daughter.”
In-home day cares also allow children to remain with the same provider as they age.
“In day care settings, children move to another classroom based on their birth date and developmental level, usually about once a year,” Bright says. That means a transition to new providers each year.
Availability of care also varies between settings.
“Most day care centers do not accept infants part-time,” Bright says.
That’s a problem for parents who work part-time. Many family day cares, on the other hand, are willing to take infants part-time. While this makes family daycare more flexible in one sense, it’s less so from other perspectives.
“In family day care, provider illness or vacation means the program closes,” Bright says.
And most family daycare centers expect parents to find alternative care options, and pay for a given amount of vacation and sick time annually. Traditional child care centers, on the other hand, only close on major holidays. And when their employees get sick or take vacation, others fill in for them.
The two types of programs also follow different regulations regarding staff-to-child ratios. Licensed family day care providers can, by law, watch up to eight children—but only two of the eight children can be under 2 years of age. If another adult assists with the care, family providers can care for up to four babies out of eight children total. Daycare centers take a maximum of six infants in one room. They must maintain a ratio of one staff member for every three infants until children reach 2 years of age.
Training requirements also differ. Family daycare providers need only attend a basic orientation, which amounts to a six-hour class. Child care center providers, on the other hand, must have a minimum of one year of experience and a 90-hour certificate. But that doesn’t mean family day care providers necessarily receive less formalized training. Many opt to further their training. Maryland Child Care Administration offers day care providers the optional Maryland Child Care Credential, a voluntary program in which attendees complete six core knowledge areas, all of which help providers develop additional knowledge and skills.
Clearly, choosing care for your infant is an important decision that requires lots of thoughtful consideration. You may begin the search process fairly certain of the type of environment and provider you envision for your infant, only to change your mind once you take a closer look. This happens frequently, says Bright. That’s why she urges parents to look at all options and compare at least three to four programs before making a decision. Amy offers similar advice.
“Keep an open mind going into it. You make the best decision you can make at the time, and you may be surprised at how happy you are with it,” she says. BC
*The mothers interviewed for this article asked that they be identified by their first names only.
Tips on Choosing Care for your Infant *
The screening process:
•Start the process by phone.
•Make face-to-face interviews to narrow your selection. Go twice: once after hours and, if you’re pleased, again when children are present.
•Ask open-ended questions during the interview; e.g., How do you disinfect toys and surfaces? (Rather than do you disinfect…?)
•Observe closely interaction between providers and children: how they nurture, discipline, communicate.
•Get a feel for how the children like it: Are they stimulated? Do their needs get met quickly? Are they actively engaged? Do they seem happy?
•Note the atmosphere: its cleanliness, safety, brightness, décor.
•Get a feel for the program: Does it provide a balance of activities (quiet/active, indoor/outdoor); appropriate toys; nutritious food?
•Look for licensed certificate (request to see it if you must).
•Request and call several references, both parents of present and former attendees.
After you choose a program:
•Continually monitor the program. Drop in unexpectedly from time to time, talk to other parents whose children are enrolled.