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Choosing Child Care

Choosing child care is one of the most difficult decisions today's parents are faced with.

In selecting the best option, it is important to consider the needs of the entire family as well as the needs for each particular child. No one form of child care is right for every family, and the best choice for your family may change over time. To meet all of a family's needs, it's good to look at the pros and cons of having an au pair. You might even choose to combine different kinds of care at the same time.

The types of child care available will vary by location, but most families will have a choice of day care centers, family day care (one or two caregivers caring for a number of children in a private home), live-in child care (nannies, au pairs and babysitters) and live-out caregivers who come to the home.

Outside the home: Licensing will vary by state, but generally day care centers and family day care are subject to regulations and standards set by government agencies. Ask if the day care is licensed or accredited and by whom.

In-home: Babysitters do not require any credentials, and most "nannies" do not have any formal training either, though some do. Au pairs placed through U.S. State Department-approved agencies, such as Au Pair in America, are subject to federal regulations for experience and must participate in agency-run training when they first arrive in the United States. Be sure to ask about experience, formal training, review references and cost of in-home care. If you are using an agency, inquire about the screening process.

Start by identifying your requirements to find the best option for your family. Questions to consider include:

  • Do you have a flexible or fixed work schedule?
    Day care centers work well with a fixed work schedule. However, a live-out caregiver leaves parents subject to tardiness or absence due to weather, health, traffic or other emergencies. A live-in caregiver offers the most flexibility and dependability. Additionally, many day care centers also charge fees if you are late picking up your child.
  • How many hours of child care do you require?
    Almost all child care options have a maximum number of hours available, but that maximum depends on the type of care and may also change based on the age of the child being cared for.
  • Do you have more than one child? How do their needs differ?
    Live-in child care offers the most flexibility with regard to schedule and the ability to meet the needs of more than one child. Live-in child care offers a lower carer to child ratio, allowing for personal care specific to your child's needs and development. Additionally, nannies, babysitters and day care centers frequently charge per child. However, Au Pair in America is one flat fee per family, not per child.
  • Do you want your child to be part of a larger peer group on a daily basis or do you prefer arranged one-on-one play-dates?
    Live-in care offers the opportunity for children to play with a variety of friends in a home or park setting. Day care centers offer larger, day-long group interaction.
  • How much can you afford to spend on child care?
    Day care centers charge differently for different age groups and number of children. Depending on your locale and the number of children in your home, the cost of in-home care may be the most effective child care available.
  • Do you have an extra bedroom that would enable privacy for both you and a live-in carer?
    Live-in carers such as au pairs require their own private bedroom. They will join your household as a member of your family. If you do not have an extra bedroom, consider live-out or community-based child care.
  • Do you need help with the children's laundry, meals, and homework, or just with child care?
    Most live-in caregivers will assist with child-related chores.
  • Can you meet the enrollment requirements at a day care setting, such as toilet training? Do you have a child with special needs?
    All children develop at different rates. If your child is not ready to enter a full-time day care center, the individualized attention provided by a live-in caregiver may be the best option. In-home care has no requirements; au pairs and nannies can also provide care for children with special needs.
  • Are you able to get ready for the start of your work day as well as make your child breakfast, help him or her get dressed, prepare snacks and/or lunch, drive to a day care provider and then arrive on time at the end of your work day to bring your child home?
    There are many pros and cons of having an au pair, but in-home care provides greater flexibility and reduces stress at transition times.
  • Do you have work or social commitments in the evening or on weekends?
    In-home care can provide coverage at these times, eliminating the needs for additional babysitting arrangements.

If your answers to the questions don't point clearly to one type of child care, you might want to consider a combination of solutions such as a live-in who can have a flexible schedule combined with enrollment in a group setting for social interaction. Such a combination is particularly desirable if you have very long work hours.

Prepare questions for your initial phone contact to help zero in on "deal-breaker" criteria. Always ask one question at a time rather than compound questions. Gather basic information first if it is available. Most live-in care agencies and some day care centers have websites.

  • Establish the program or individual's ability to meet your basic needs.
  • Inquire about availability. A minimum of two months lead-time is recommended for a child care search; in some communities children go on waiting lists at birth.
  • Arrange an observation if it is a group setting.
  • Interview an individual in person if the candidate is local or by phone if you are considering someone from another part of the US, or an au pair from another country.
  • Frame your questions so that they cannot be answered with just one word.
  • Be sure to allow time for questions as the content of questions from the candidate is instructive.
  • Be candid about the challenges of your particular family and your specific child care expectations.
  • Discuss expectations of how the caregiver will integrate (or not) into the household.
  • Always trust your instincts.

References – ask for a minimum of two references to call. Do not accept written references without a contact number for verification.

There is a limited tax credit for child care. There are no tax liabilities for families using care outside the house, but for care in your own home, you may be responsible for paying a variety of employment taxes. Au pairs may be an exception to this. It is best to check with your tax advisor.

For more information, visit: Child and Dependent Care Credit Child Care Credits FAQ Au Pair Tax Information

If you choose community based care

The center or provider will have a fixed set of expectations. Be sure that they are compatible with your needs and desires.

  • Do the caregivers speak eye-to-eye with the children?
  • Are the children's needs quickly met even during busy times?
  • What are the qualifications of the caregivers?
  • Is there regular communication between the providers and the parents about what the children do?
  • Are unannounced visits encouraged or even permitted?
  • Is the facility bright and cheerful?
  • Are the toys and materials in good condition and adequately organized?
  • Are the books in easy reach of the children?
  • Is there a fenced-in outdoor play area with a variety of safe equipment?
  • Does the schedule provide a balance of unstructured play time, group time, activity time and quiet time?
  • What are the discipline procedures?
  • Does the program meet state licensing requirements?
  • Do the children seem happy, busy and well cared for?
  • What was your immediate reaction to the setting, staff and program?

Establish job parameters by developing a written contract to include:

  • Number of weekly and daily work hours (schedule should be set at the beginning of the week)
  • Salary (always remember to pay on agreed pay day)
  • Specific child care duties
  • Household duties (child-related)
  • Benefits (medical insurance, tuition, sick days, etc.)
  • Vacation (usually two weeks paid vacation)
  • Amount of notice expected for termination

If you are working with an agency, such as Au Pair in America, they may help you with this. In the case of au pairs, these parameters are defined by the federal government. Au pairs can work up to 45 hours per week, no more than ten hours per day.

Children's supervision and activities, preparing and cleaning up from meals, children's laundry and keeping children's rooms and play areas tidy and clean are generally included in the cost of in-home care.

The program fee paid to an au pair agency includes medical insurance. With other caregivers, you may opt to provide insurance.

Sick days and holidays are negotiable. All caregivers expect a minimum of two weeks paid vacation.

It may not be possible to hold a caregiver to a long-term contract, but it is appropriate to request two weeks or a month's notice and to initially agree to a minimum of a one year commitment. Au pair placements are for one year with an option to extend for a second year.

You may find the following questions useful when interviewing caregivers:

  • What is your experience with...?
    Choose appropriate questions based on your particular needs such as changing diapers, children's outdoor activities, or homework support.
  • What is the longest amount of time you have regularly cared for children in one day?
  • How can you make bedtime fun and easy?
  • What do you do when a child gets angry and doesn't listen?
  • What can you do if two children want your attention at the same time?
  • What activities do you like to do with children?
  • What would be a good snack for a child in the afternoon?
  • How would you respond if the children do not want to do what you have planned?
  • (live-in specific question) Have you lived away from home before?
  • (live-in specific question) What do you like to do in your free time?
  • Create a relationship of mutual respect.
  • Agree on a schedule and stick to it.
  • Keep communication open.
  • Address problems as they arise.

If your caregiver was placed by an agency and you are having a problem, the agency may be able to assist you. Au pair counselors expect to be called upon to help resolve issues and are trained in mediation. If you are dissatisfied with care at a day care center, make an appointment to discuss the problem with the director.

As with any long-term relationship, you need to display genuine personal interest in your caregiver.

Keep in mind that a happy caregiver increases the likelihood of happy and safe children.

Child Care Aware: 800-424-2246,
IRS Tax Information: 800-TAX-FORM,
National Association for the Education of Young Children:
Early Childhood Education:
National Resource Center for Health and Safety:
Au Pair in America - live-in child care:

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