It's 7:30 on a midweek evening - bedtime for 22-month-old Cyrus Irani. After the toddler listens to "Goodnight Moon," his big brown eyes grow heavy, and before long he is asleep, clutching his favorite stuffed animal, a chipmunk named Elmo.
Yet this is bedtime with a difference. Instead of being in his own room at home, Cyrus sleeps on a mat at the Four Seasons Children's Center, with a child-care teacher gently rocking him and tucking him in. Later, between 9:30 and 10:30, either his father, a physician, or his mother, a nurse, will pick him up when their shifts end, and he'll finish the night in his own bed.
For a growing number of families like the Iranis, child care is no longer a daytime activity. According to a report released last month by the US Department of Labor, nearly 1 in 5 full-time employees - more than 14 million Americans - work nonstandard hours in fields as diverse as medicine, transportation, and manufacturing. The study, called "Care Around the Clock," finds a "mismatch" between the hours parents work and the hours child-care services are available, resulting in a shortage of round-the-clock care.
Parents look for flexible solutions
"I've been in this business a long time, and in the last few years people's schedules have changed a lot," says Beth Eagles, owner of the Four Seasons Children's Center. Reflecting those changes, her center is open from 6:30 a.m. until midnight and is licensed for nine children in the evening. Although Ms. Eagles frequently gets calls for weekend care as well, she draws the line at a five-day week.
Nina Irani, Cyrus's mother, praises this schedule. "It's been a blessing for us," she says. "Cyrus loves the center, and we're happy. Without it, I might not be able to work, because my field requires flexibility."
Other parents devise a variety of family-centered solutions.
"There is a greater need for evening care today, but it tends to get worked out in a private manner," says Amy Boulter, resource and referral director for Workplace Connections in Waltham, Mass. "Some employees balance it with family members and neighbors. Or Mom works days, Dad works nights. Many times people hire a temporary-care agency to provide overnight care. If they need it on a consistent basis, they may hire a college student."
Another option, Ms. Boulter says, is to combine child care and a nanny. "If kids go to day care from 9 to 3, a nanny could work from 3 to 11."
Mindy Gewirtz, a management consultant at Work and Life Balance Associates in Brookline, Mass., explains another reason some parents with erratic schedules must rely on informal arrangements.
"Many shift workers tend to be blue-collar," she says. "They're not the people who are in the first wave of being able to receive work-family benefits."
Yet as one indication that the workplace is slowly catching up with changing family needs, innovative off-hours solutions are beginning to appear around the country.
In Georgetown, Ky., Toyota Motor Manufacturing operates an on-site, 24-hour child-care center licensed for 230 children between the ages of six weeks and 13 years. It serves Toyota employees who work shifts or overtime schedules.
Another round-the-clock center, the Atlanta Children's Inn, is scheduled to open late this year. Spearheaded by a consortium of hotels, the one-story facility will fill a city block and include three playgrounds. Eighty percent of its 250 slots will serve families of hotel workers, with the remaining 20 percent available to the community.
High price tag for off-hours care
Because this kind of accredited care comes with a price tag beyond the means of many lower-income employees, Donna Klein, director of work-life programs at Marriott International in Washington, says, "Participating hotels are guaranteeing the subsidy on more than half of the weekly child-care fees for their employees."
On the West Coast, the two-year-old Palcare Child Care Center in Burlingame, Calif., serves workers at and around San Francisco International Airport. Operated by a nonprofit agency, it can accommodate 150 children.
Since many airport employees work rotating shifts, Palcare specializes in flexible scheduling. "Parents can turn in a new child-care schedule every month, and within that month each week does not need to be the same," says Nirmala Dillman, executive director. "We haven't found another center with as much flexibility."
She acknowledges that such flexibility is expensive. Care for an infant - 10-hour days, 21 days a month - runs about $750 a month. For a toddler, fees average $600, and for a preschooler, $500. But because employers and community groups offer subsidies and scholarships, no parents pay the full cost, Ms. Dillman says.
Unknown effects on children
One parent dependent on Palcare is Annie Thomas of Redwood City, Calif. As a customer-service agent for Canadian Airlines and British Airways, she works from 4 to 10:30 p.m. She takes the couple's four-year-old son, Aaron Illathu, to the center on her way to work. Her husband, a bank manager, picks him up at 6 or 7 p.m.
Before Palcare, Ms. Thomas used a center with regular hours. But on Fridays, when the bank stays open until 7:30 p.m., her husband would rush to pick up Aaron at 6, then take him back to work with him.
Children spending the evening at Palcare usually get into their pajamas around 7:30 or 8 p.m. Staff members read stories and follow special bedtime rituals. As Dillman says, "Going to sleep is a tender time that takes a lot of attention and finesse."
So tender a time, in fact, that not everyone supports the idea of nighttime child care. "People have lots of feelings about round-the-clock centers," Gewirtz says. "They worry about taking children out of the home at night and worry about children waking up at night and the parent not being there. Parents try very hard to find other arrangements." Because extended-hours care is relatively new, Gewirtz adds, "We don't know enough about it yet. We still have a lot of questions about around-the-clock centers: How do children fare under those conditions? Is there a difference in conditions in child-care centers that go until 11 p.m. and those that go until you wake up in the morning? "
For shift workers, Gewirtz sees child care as just "the tip of the iceberg - it's what shows most. People wonder, 'Where do we put our baby at night? What do I do with my daughter if I come home at 7 in the morning and need to sleep a few hours, but she's in afternoon kindergarten?' But in truth, it's much larger than that. They ask, 'How do I arrange for quality time with my wife and children, when the rest of the world lives 9-to-5, and I have a different schedule?' "
For those reasons, she says, "Most people don't keep this schedule up. They say, 'If there was an equivalent job during the day, I would switch.' They're not telling you, 'I'm going up the career ladder, or I like my night job.' They say, 'We'll do it until we can pay for the house. Then we're going back to a saner schedule.' "