KAREN BERGER smiles as she watches her two-year-old son, Max, arrange pieces of a puzzle on the living-room floor of her Boston apartment.
"Good job!" she says after he successfully plops a giant-sized puzzle piece in the right place.
Looking after Max and his four-year-old brother, Kyle, is not always easy for a single working mother like Ms. Berger. Her irregular schedule as a physical therapist means often having to be at work as early as 6 a.m. or staying as late as 9 p.m.
With such hours, Berger knew she needed a live-in child-care provider. Now, thanks to Susanne Sterup, a 19-year-old au pair from Denmark, Berger's two boys have live-in care.
"The biggest reason inevitably was cost," Berger says of her decision to participate in an au-pair program based in Cambridge, Mass. "I had previously hired someone to come into the house, and that was quite expensive."
After the hullabaloo over United States attorney general nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood and their hiring of nannies who were illegal aliens, the public is tuned in to the problem of finding affordable, quality child care. And in this era of dual-income and single-parent families, mothers or fathers can't always afford the option of staying at home.
The au-pair option may provide some relief for working couples who can afford this legal live-in plan. Au pairs - who come to the US on one-year visas - are not subject to Social-Security tax, because they are considered exchange students. Also, the placement agencies provide health insurance for their au pairs.
"We're finding now we're getting more inquiries than ever from families, especially now with recent articles concerning illegal child care. People seem to be calling us more," says Sarah-Ann Lynch, vice president of EF Au Pair in Cambridge, Mass.
Au pair agencies, which work like student-exchange programs, find high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 25 to come to the United States to work as live-in child-care providers for families. Au pairs who come to the US are European and are expected to speak English fluently (though not all of them do). Most of them are female.
The eight au-pair agencies that operate in the US are approved and regulated by the US Information Agency, a branch of the State Department. Au pairs can work no longer than 45 hours per week, are only supposed to do light household work, and must have their own bedrooms.
KIDS who stay at home with an au pair can play with neighborhood children and follow their customary schedules, says Cathryn Speers, client representative at Excel/Au Pair Programs USA in Salt Lake City. Having an au pair also fits parents' schedules.
"There aren't the daily hassles and rush in getting everyone to work and day care by 8 in the morning," Ms. Speers says.
Families with several children especially find au pairs an affordable option.
Ken Fortini of Duxbury, Mass., first hired an au pair two years ago because his wife decided to get a master's degree. Her schedule forced her to be away from home for "just all kinds of crazy hours," Mr. Fortini says.
The couple hired an East German au pair to care for their three children. "Surprising enough, the au-pair program, including everything, is cheaper than most day care for three children," he says.
Dawn and Rob Youngblood of Minneapolis hired an au pair to help with four children, including triplets. Ms. Youngblood, a community representative for EF Au Pair in Minneapolis, runs her own business out of her home.
"My very first au-pair situation wasn't difficult, because I was so relieved to have the help with three newborns. The second time it was difficult with the language barrier," she says.
Indeed, hiring an au pair does have its disadvantages. Some families may not like having a new person live in their home or one who may not speak English fluently. Also, au pairs are usually not professionally trained in child care, as some nannies are.
"Part of their responsibility may include some child care, but they are not pretending that they are experienced or trained in child care," says Caroline Eichman, research director for Child Care Action Campaign in New York.
"The other part of it is that au pairs are not supposed to be providing child care for children 24 hours a day. Their hours are supposed to be limited, whereas nannies are supposed to be providing care 24 hours a day, if they are living in the same house [with the children]."
While some live-in child-care help can cost as much as $300 a week, au pairs are paid a standard weekly stipend of $100 a week. According to Ms. Lynch of EF Au Pair, the total cost for hiring an au pair averages $175 per week, including wages, insurance, airfare, program fees, a two-week vacation, and a $300 education allowance.
TYPICALLY, au-pair agencies cater to dual-career families. "[Clients] tend to be in the middle to upper classes - although that is changing, and it is tending to go across the board these days," Speers says.
Nevertheless, live-in child care is a declining trend nationwide, with families now opting for day care. (See the related story, this page.)
In 1990, only 3 percent of children in the US received live-in child care, compared with 15 percent in 1965, according to Ms. Eichman of Child Care Action Campaign.
Even so, having an au pair may be appealing to those interested in the cultural benefits of the program. Families who like to travel can do so vicariously by learning about the language and home country of their au pair.
In Ms. Berger's Boston apartment living room with her sons and au pair Susanne, the warm family atmosphere is noticeable. Last fall, Berger took Susanne to her parents' home for the Thanksgiving holiday.
"She's part of the family here," Berger says of Susanne. "So when I leave [the kids], it's not a big deal to them."