5 top childcare options: cost and value, from day care to nanny

In that great juggle of work and parenthood, nothing can cause more stress – or more relief – than your childcare arrangements. But with so many options out there, how’s a parent to find a system that will help rather than hurt? Here we give the skinny on the top five childcare options so you can decide what’s right for you.

From day care to au pairs, every family has a child care option that works for them. Robert Harbison

1. Day care center

Robert Harbison

More than 2.6 million children under age five attend official day care centers, according to the US Census. These are care facilities that must be licensed and meet a variety of government regulations and safety standards; they also typically have professional staff and accept infants as young as six weeks old.

COST: The average cost of full-time childcare for an infant in a center ranges from $4,600 in Mississippi to nearly $15,000 in Massachusetts. The price tag doesn’t drop much as the child gets older.

PROS: Fully staffed during regular hours, which means no “babysitter couldn’t make it today” crises for 9-to-5 working parents. Depending on the program, centers boast curriculums that claim to do everything from fostering self-confidence to developing motor and social skills to bolstering intellectual development. Infants and toddlers meet other children their age.

CONS: The cost is high. According to a recent ChildCare Aware of America report, in most states it costs more to send an infant to a day care center than it does to send a teenager to public college. And while there may be price breaks for siblings, the fee is essentially the same for each child in a single family.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that a license and government stamp of approval – even a monthly bill that is more than your rent – translates to quality care, say many child advocacy groups. Childcare workers tend to receive low salaries, staff turnover is high, and some academic studies have found that young toddlers do not get socialization benefits from being in a center setting. (Some say they actually become more aggressive.) Only 10 states require comprehensive background checks before allowing a person to work in a childcare center, ChildCare Aware of America reported earlier this year. 

If you work odd hours or night shifts, these centers are probably your least flexible option in terms of when your child gets care.

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