While pregnant with her first child, Rori Malech of Potomac, MD spent a ton of time trying to make choices -- the right crib, the perfect onesie, the best diaper brand. But once her son was born, she faced one of her biggest decisions yet: What would she do for child care when she returned to her high-powered job as an attorney?
Malech was not alone in facing this decision. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 66 percent of women with children age 17 or younger work either full or part time. That means more families than ever are exploring child care choices and weighing all the financial, logistical and emotional decisions that come with them. Here, experts Carolyn Stolov, M.Ed, family life expert at Care.com; Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, psychologist and author of Playful Parenting; and Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, point out everything parents should consider when choosing between day care and nannies.
- Builds social skills. With so many kids to play with and learn from, day care provides the benefit of socialization, says Cohen. This is especially important to children once they are three or four, and to children who like lots of novelty and stimulation.
- Rich resources. Most centers offer a wide array of toys, games, enrichments, play equipment and more. They may have more materials one home could ever provide, ranging from art supplies and educational games to dress-up outfits and building blocks. Many also bring in experts for extra activities or lessons like music or gymnastics.
- State regulated. Day care centers must abide by state regulations around safety, sanitation, staffing, space issues and more. Stolov points out a plus that states also require workers to have a certain level of education and experience -- including ongoing education. Of course, this also shouldn't be assumed. When visiting day care centers, be sure look for the most recent state license -- and ask if you don't see one displayed. Also, see if they have been accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Centers who go through this process tend to go above and beyond state licensing requirements.
- Additional supervision. In most centers, teachers are supervised by a director and there are many families and teachers popping in and out of the classrooms, providing an extra level of safety and supervision.
- Your schedule. You are stuck in a meeting as the clock ticks toward the end of the day. Since day care centers have specific closing times, you may have to leave work before you are ready or pay the center hefty fines for late pick-ups. Not to mention walking in the door at dinner time and having to get you and your little one situated. (Get 6 tips for surviving the Witching Hours ?)
- Your child's personality. Certain children may struggle with a multitude of transitions and stimuli throughout the day (while others may be fine). But every child's temperament is different, Stolov emphasizes. Know yours. Some children find group care overwhelming and are sensitive to too much stimulation, noise and teacher transitions.
- Group realities. Other kids' behavior and development can impact your child's day. How will your child be influenced by a child who needs additional discipline? How do you feel about teachers caring for a few infants at one time?
- Sick policies. Yes, germs and kids go together like macaroni and cheese. And daycare centers often have strict "stay home if you're sick" policy. That means you may get called at work to pick up your ill child or will have to arrange last-minute care if he strikes a fever.
- You can call the shots. According to Kogan, some moms find this sense of control reassuring. Since you are directing one person -- your nanny -- about your child's day, you have more control over what your child does, when he does it and how he does it -- not to mention where he goes and what he is exposed to. And, you can keep your child on a schedule if you so desire -- from naps and snacks to meals and play time. You can also ask for detailed daily reports and picture texts during the day to make you feel part of their fun.
- One-on-one attention and attachment. Nannies provide the benefit of a single attachment figure, Cohen says, which can be especially important to younger children and to those who have strong reactions to new and unfamiliar situations. The nanny is focused on your child's needs, and there's no competition for attention.
- Logistics can be a lot easier. Some parents actually enjoy their child-free commute to work! There is a lot to be said for walking out the door with your laptop, on time and without a diaper bag or toddler's backpack. Dinner and the witching hour can be a bit easier; if you forgot to put the casserole in the oven, you can call home and ask your nanny to do it. When you need a plumber, you don't have to take off work to wait -- your nanny is there to let him in. Many nannies help with light housework, kid meals or the children's laundry.
- Depending on one person. You may be out of luck when nanny gets sick or has to leave town. A nanny coming down with the flu or needing time off can send parents into a tailspin. There's no group of staffers to step in. You'll need to have a backup plan or take time off work.
- No regulation or oversight. The nanny is only regulated by the employer who hires her. Nannies aren't required to have certain levels of education or child development coursework (though many do). Screening nanny candidates and running background checks is up to parents (or the nanny agency).
- The parent becomes the employer. Having a household employee who makes over $1,900 a year means you pay taxes. It also means you can take advantage of tax breaks via the Child Care Tax Credit (IRS Form 2441) and/or dependent care flexible spending accounts (if you have that workplace benefit). It's important to remember that paying "on the books" can often cost above the agreed to hourly rate because you have to account for the taxes you will pay as a household employer. You also need to think about things like sick time and vacation days, as your nanny should be allowed some paid time off throughout the year. It's best to talk this out up front and put your agreement in a nanny contract. Remember, you are the employer and you should commit to ongoing supervision and feedback for your nanny.
Let's face it, this is one of the hardest decisions out there. So, how do the experts think you should choose? Think about your child. What is his or her temperament, personality and experience with transitions? Does he have any special needs? What makes the most sense for your schedule and your finances? Which of these weigh most heavily?
All these factors can help you understand your options, but there is no one right answer. What one parent may see as a pro (she'll fold the laundry!), another may see as a con (I don't want anyone touching my stuff!). And some families decide to set up nanny shares (2 families, 1 nanny), Care.com Co-ops (free care swaps based on a point system) or have backup babysitters for day care emergencies.
Then do your homework. Before you take time to visit a day care center, think about its location and if it's on a logistically realistic route to work. Tour a center to observe how the staffers interact with children. Interview nannies. Make a list of pros and cons as you imagine each choice fitting into your life. Then, given all these considerations, you can do what's right for your family and child -- and make the arrangement work best.