Child care choices: Au pair, day care or nanny?
Love. You knew you loved your child the moment you held them in your arms. You've rocked, soothed, shushed and cuddled your heart out. You've had their puke, tears and poo on your finest clothes and barely batted an eye. Yes, your child has become as important to you as your beating heart — and now you have to go back to work.
Everyone talks about work-life balance, but it's the stress of trying to set up reliable child care that can really set the stage for your new juggling act. When you're returning to work and trying to figure out who will watch your child, the options can be overwhelming. It's hard enough to mentally and logistically pull off the new job of being a parent, but add in fears, emotions (um, hormones), financial factors and time constraints, and it seems like finding the right child care is the toughest and most important job in the world. And then there's what "everyone else is doing."
You've likely heard neighborhood parents or friends rave about their new au pair, trusted day care center or loyal nanny. But you have to remember that what's right for one family may not be right for yours. So we asked experts to share pros and cons around choosing and using day care centers, nannies (including live-in nannies) and au pairs.
Au pair programs
What are they?
A government-regulated cultural exchange program — and not solely a child care position — with requirements for both families and care providers, according to Tanna Wilson, managing director at Go Au Pair. Families go through an agency (paying a fee) to find a vetted provider who seems like a "match."
Au pairs must be high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 26, and they must be proficient in English. Au pair agencies are required to provide 32 hours of child care training. Au pairs who will care for children under age 2 must complete an additional 200 hours of infant care. In addition, an au pair cannot be placed with a special needs child without additional certifications and documentation.
How do they work?
Au pair agencies charge families fees for their services. For example, in the case of the Cultural Care Au Pair agency, there's an application fee of $75 and a $300 processing fee once you choose the au pair. A new family fee is $9,195. They offer several payment options, including an extended payment option. The agency runs discounts of different kinds throughout the year, such as waiving application fees, offering discounts for families with military parents, multiples or families who have hosted au pairs from a competitor agency. As you investigate au pair agencies, be sure to ask about these options.
Parents and au pairs are typically asked to write an essay and bio about themselves and their family, including pictures. This becomes a package that everyone views online. Once people connect, they use email and Skype to get to know each other better.
Leslie Byers, a McLean, Virginia child care coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair, conveys the basics she's learned in her 19 years as a coordinator and host mother of six au pairs for her three children. She emphasizes that the State Department manages all au pair agencies in the United States. Au pairs are limited to 45 hours a week and no more than 10 hours on any one day.
The family must provide the au pair:
- A private bedroom with a bed, a window, a closet (or other appropriate space) and electricity.
- Access to a bathroom.
- Full board.
- A weekly stipend of $195.75 a week.
- Two weeks paid vacation a year and 1.5 days off a week.
- $500 toward education requirement (6 credits or 72 hours of instruction at an accredited university/college).
- Transportation to and from class and monthly au pair meetings and auto insurance coverage if she drives the family's car (and gas expenses for on-duty driving).
Au pairs can do light housework as it pertains to the children. They can clean areas of the house the children use, change their linens and do their laundry — but can't do any hard scrubbing or wash windows, Byers says.
Au pairs: The pros
"Au pairs are more than child care providers; they are role models, mentors, big brothers, big sisters and friends," Wilson says. You can count on a set number of child care hours per week. Your family gets exposure to a new culture; your kids can even learn a new language.
If you go through a reputable au pair agency, you know she's been trained according to the agency's program — often in areas of child development or safety. Flexibility is a big benefit; you can change her hours week to week if you have meetings or want to get out. If you want to use her more than 45 hours, you can do so and pay extra. On a weekly basis, the cost will be less than if you used a full-time nanny or day care center/provider. If your child gets sick, you still have child care in place.
Au pairs: The considerations
Families who hire au pairs must provide all the components the State Department requires (see "How they work"). You may compromise your privacy as someone shares your house and, depending on your set-up, your kitchen, living space and more. Those cultural differences that may be entertaining may take some getting used to. You may need to temper your hopes for housekeeping help; she is not a live-in maid. You'll need to be comfortable having her drive your car. Finally, your time together will have to end. The State Department dictates au pair arrangements are 12-month gigs and can extend for 6, 9 or 12 months (for any agency), so eventually, your family has to say goodbye.
Who are they best for?
Families with an extra bedroom, bathroom and living space so a caregiver -- and the family — can have a little freedom. Families who have erratic hours or may have to work late unexpectedly — you can avoid day care center late fees or a nanny who has to leave to get home to her own kids. Families who want to expose their kids to different cultures, but who don't mind transitioning caregivers every one to two years
What are they?
Day care is offered by private providers in their homes and in standalone centers. Since the states establish all the licensing and accreditation requirements, it's important to know your local licensing requirements and regulations.
Once you've found a licensed provider, you need to go there — and show up with a written list of questions (such as how will I learn about my child's day? Can I pop in unannounced? What is a typical day's schedule? Is there a curriculum the center follows?). Don't trust yourself to remember everything you want to ask. Follow your list, and write down the answers you receive.
How do they work?
Find a list of day care centers in your neighborhood, read reviews and take tours. There is often a wait-list 6 months to a year, so it's a good idea to do your research as soon as you learn you are pregnant (you can always take yourself off the wait-list if you choose another option). Ask about teacher-student ratios, activities and schedules in a typical day and how they keep the facility secure. Be observant; look around at the quality of play equipment, cleanliness of the rooms and the way caregivers interact with the kids. Most centers will give you a packet to review which will include an application and service fees.
Consider cost factors and realize they can vary according to where you live. Recent survey findings from a National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies found the average annual cost of full-time care for an infant in a center in 2010 ranged from $4,650 in Mississippi to $18,200 in the District of Columbia. The average annual cost for full-time care for a 4-year-old in a center ranged from $3,900 in Mississippi to $14,050 in the District of Columbia.
If you'd like to learn more about your day care options, how much they cost, and how to handle day care interviews, take a look at our Day Care Guide.
Day cares: The pros
A day care setting provides a wonderful opportunity for children to play together, learn from peers and in many cases gain preschool skills. If one caregiver is sick, there are generally backups in place, so your schedule won't be disrupted. And some day care facilities include meals (no need to pack lunch!) — and children can eat in a group.
For one child, this can be incredibly cost efficient. Your child will get more social interaction. He'll have a learning or activity structure; you may get regular written reports/updates on his development, i.e. how he napped or something new he tried and enjoyed. Some centers even have webcams so parents can log in and watch their babies sleep!
Day cares: The considerations
The big thing everyone talks about is illness: When one kid gets sick, they may all get sick -- then you can't bring him and you are scrambling to find back-up child care or opting to miss work. (The benefit here is that supposedly a good immune system is built after their first year.) Nap time is sporadic for a while. Your kid may not get a lot of one-on-one attention. Mornings can add stress, as you try to get yourself and your child ready and out of the house on time. Most centers are closed on holidays, even ones you might not have off. You may have to race there by closing time to avoid paying late fees.
Who are they best for?
Families with only one child; after that, it may not be cost-effective. Families with a set schedule where one can do pickup by the center's closing bell (often 5:30). Parents who want a high level of social interaction for their child before the preschool years. Scenarios where the location and logistics work, like a good day care center near your house or conveniently located on the way to your office.
What are they?
According to Sheilagh Roth, who founded the English Nanny & Governess School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 27 years ago and serves as executive director, a nanny is a person "who nurtures and cares for children and addresses their physical, emotional and intellectual health in a safe environment." You can choose between hiring a live-in nanny (provided you have a spare bedroom, this option has less rules than an au pair agency regulates), a live-out nanny, or a nanny share.
How do they work?
Use a nanny finding service or agency to find nannies within a quick commute. Interview them over the phone, run background checks, meet in person, test with your children, hire. (Care.com lets you post a job with your specific needs and hours so the nannies come to you.) Remember, it's an employee-employer relationship. You are required to track and report her earnings to state and federal governments.
If you'd like to learn more about the different types of nanny options out there, the costs of a nanny, and how to handle nanny interviews, check out our Nanny Guide.
Nannies: The pros
There's no rush to get your child up, dressed, fed and out the door so you can get to work on time. Nap times and set routines are easier to stick to. You have more control over the activities and daily schedule, including food prep (especially if organic is a must). A nanny can help the child get out and explore the world -- even a trip to the grocery store can be an experience (and solve your "what to make for dinner" worries if you find someone who cooks). Nannies can take care of sick kids, even going solo to doctor sick visits.
Depending on the person, you can find someone who will take care of your house, kids and errands -- meeting the plumber or cable guy for maintenance issues, doing laundry and picking up milk. The right nanny can work with your child's temperament and learning style, often aiding the parents to meet specific developmental goals. They can also befriend other nannies and arrange age-appropriate play dates or outings.
Nannies: The considerations
Having someone in your house may bother you; you may have to deal with a nanny contract and taxes; and if the nanny gets sick or goes on vacation, you'll need to have a backup plan in place (and yes, you are supposed to pay for her sick days and at least 2 weeks of vacation). You may have to suggest playful ideas or sign up for activities (often costing more money) to ensure your child is stimulated.
You may also choose to enroll your toddler in half-day pre-k program for a structured learning atmosphere, but at an additional cost, leaving the nanny in charge of pick-up and drop-off. Driving is another factor parents have to think about. Are you comfortable with someone driving your kids to and from activities? Can you afford more car seats? You'll want to make sure she has reliable transportation, a valid driver's license and any state mandated insurance. Use our enhanced background check service to look for traffic violations (speeding and parking tickets) and go on a drive to determine her qualifications behind the wheel.
Nannies: The cost
You should pay a nanny at least minimum wage. Many nannies will charge an hourly wage that is significantly higher than this. The cost will depend on where you live, the number of hours, number/age of kids and previous experience. Use our pay scale calculator to determine the going rate in your area. Most states don't regulate nannies in your home, so it's important to do your own background check and to follow up and check references.
Who are they best for?
Often this is more cost-efficient for families with two or more children (or a pet) and especially convenient for parents who would benefit from a clean house, a walked-dog and well-fed kids when they get home from work. Families with erratic work schedules who can't always make a 5:30 pick-up greatly benefit from having a nanny they can call when a meeting runs late.
If you have an infant or a very young child, you may find a nanny to be your best option, as care is provided in your home and the baby is getting the one-on-one attention you would give if you were home.
Cost estimates in your area
Find out the cost of a nanny vs. a day care center in your area.
The bottom line
Deciding who to hand your child over to will be a stressful (not to mention guilt-ridden) decision. When you choose a type of caregiver, many of the factors above figure in. But one thing is certain: a mother's instincts are often good to go on. Sometimes, it may all come down to a reassured feeling you get from a certain caregiver's smile.