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In-home day care vs. a daycare center: What’s the difference?

It's not easy choosing between in-home daycare vs. a daycare center. Here, child care experts break down the benefits to help you decide.

In-home day care vs. a daycare center: What’s the difference?

You have a lot of factors to consider when deciding on the best type of child care for your family. Many parents ultimately come down to a decision between a commercial daycare center and an in-home daycare, which is often called family child care.

Of course, there are advantages and considerations for both daycare options, and every family has different child care needs and requirements. To help you decide which is best for your family, here’s an overview of both types of daycare according to industry experts, as well as a handy list comparing in-home daycare vs. daycare centers that can help you make the most informed decision about what’s right for your child.

What is in-home daycare?

In general, in-home daycare is child care that’s provided in a professional caregiver’s home or another private residence, so your child is cared for in a home-like setting, rather than the more institutional setting of a child care center. There are two main types of in-home daycares:

Family daycare

This type of daycare typically has one caregiver who cares for six children or fewer, though the specific amount will be determined by state-defined ratios. These providers may limit themselves to a specific age range or care for children of all ages.

Group daycare

This type of child care usually consists of two or more adult caregivers and a larger group of children of varied ages. The specific numbers will depend on state ratios.

Some parents prefer an in-home child care for its homey setting. Other benefits of in-home daycares include:

  • Smaller caregiver-to-child ratios.
  • Highly individualized care for infants and small children.
  • Mixed age groups for learning and socialization.
  • Varied locations, making it easier to find care close to home.

Not every state requires in-home daycares to be licensed. You can review the daycare licensing requirements for your state at your local state government website. Parents should choose a licensed and/or accredited daycare provider whenever possible.

What is a daycare center?

A daycare center is a licensed child care provider run out of a facility that is either privately owned or operated by a non-profit organization, like a church, school or the local government. Daycare centers employ qualified caregivers, and children are typically grouped into different classrooms by age.

Parents often choose a daycare center for its social and educational environment. Daycare centers generally allow more kids than you’ll see in an in-home daycare, but you’ll also find more caregivers to watch over those children. Some of the other benefits of daycare centers include:

  • Required state licensing.
  • Mandated health and safety protocols and procedures.
  • Specific requirements for hiring, training and certifying employees.
  • Age-based socialization and education opportunities for young kids.
  • Often operate using an established curriculum or child care philosophy.

Examples of center-based daycares include school programs, summer camps, faith-based programs, nursery schools, preschools and pre-K, as well as licensed, independently owned or chain centers. Each state’s Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agency determines if a provider is required to be regulated and what regulations must be met. Check out this list of state-by-state resources for the child care licensing information relevant to your family.

Key differences between in-home daycare vs. daycare center

To help you make an informed decision, we asked child care experts to share the pros and cons of both types of daycare. Here, Carolyn Stolov, executive director at Wellesley Community Children’s Center; Kathie Anderson, an in-home daycare provider in Austin, Texas; and Donna Van Hall, director of Graves Mill Early Learning Center in Forest, Virginia, offer their expertise.

Multiple child care providers: If one teacher is sick and unable to provide care, additional teachers can
fill in so that parents aren’t left without a backup plan.
State inspected and licensed: Daycare centers must meet standards for cleanliness and safety, and comply with building codes.
Quality teachers: The teachers in daycare centers may have a stronger education background and take ongoing classes to fulfill requirements.
Age-appropriate curriculum: Age-based classrooms, learning activities, outdoor play, arts, crafts and activities help develop skills.
More individual attention: “Children are often a face in the crowd in a daycare center,” Anderson says. “In a family child care home, we really get to know each other well.”
Affordability: The cost of in-home daycare may be cheaper than a day care center.
Fewer germs: Because there are fewer children, your child may be exposed to fewer illnesses.
More relaxed curriculum: Children may follow a curriculum, but there’s often more freedom for the in-home daycare provider to change the schedule.
Siblings can remain together: This is an important factor for many parents, especially those whose children are very close.
Cost: Daycare centers are commercial properties, so overhead is higher than a private home, making the cost of a daycare center higher. Learn more about the cost of child care.
Germs: There are multiple children to a class and multiple classes in a center, increasing the chance for illness.
Children may have less free play: Because daycare centers often teach a curriculum, children may engage in less free play.
Availablity: Many daycares are still dealing with budget shortfalls and staffing issues caused by the pandemic. For that reason, daycare waitlists are common.
Limited backup plans: Most in-home child care providers have a backup plan in the event of illness. However, emergencies can happen.
Less regulation: In-home daycare licensing requirements vary by state. If your area doesn’t regulate these programs, safety and health issues may be a concern.
Difference in philosophies: In-home providers are individuals. You may find the provider’s philosophy isn’t in line with your family’s style.

The bottom line on in-home daycare vs. center daycare

There are many benefits to using both an in-home daycare or a daycare center. The deciding factor is ultimately your child’s individual needs and the type of care that feels most affordable and most beneficial for your family.

No matter which daycare option you choose, industry experts say safety should be your number one priority. Check your daycare’s licensing requirements, run background checks on the people caring for your child and focus on finding the right fit for your family’s particular needs. With so many options to choose from, there’s no doubt you’ll be able to find a daycare where your child thrives.