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

Sandy Wallace
Feb. 13, 2019

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 day care center and an in-home day care, which is often called family child care.

Of course, there are advantages and considerations for both day care 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 day care, as well as our list of pros and cons that can help you make the most informed decision about what’s right for your child.

What is in-home day care?

In general, what sets an in-home day care apart from a typical day care center is the care setting. In-home child care is 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.

Parents of infants often prefer an in-home child care for its homey setting and because it can be easier to find one close to home. Many have smaller caregiver-to-child ratios, too, allowing the staff to provide more the individualized care parents of babies sometimes prefer.

In-home child care programs usually offer a mixed age group with a collection of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, so it's more like a family than a classroom. This diversity can be a great learning environment for kids of all ages.

There are two main types of in-home day cares:

  • Family day care: This type of day care 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 day care: 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.

Not every state requires in-home day cares to be licensed. You can review the requirements for your particular state at your local state government website or by searching the National Database of Child Care Licensing Regulations. Parents should choose a licensed and/or accredited provider whenever possible.

What is a day care center?

Parents often choose a day care center for its social, learning environment. It’s like an early an introduction to the classroom, in which qualified caregivers care for kids who are grouped by age, from very young infants all the way to school-age children. A day care center generally allows for more kids than you’ll see in an in-home day care, but you’ll also find more caregivers to watch over those children.

Some parents consider a day care a safer situation for their children, in part because day care centers are often made to follow strict rules and regulations. Day care centers must be licensed by the state, and the qualifications for licensing vary state to state. These regulations typically establish caregiver-to-child ratios and certain health and safety requirements, as well as additional requirements related to training, certifications and background checks for employees. Check out this map of state-by-state resources via Child Care Aware for the child care licensing information relevant to your family.

Day care centers may be privately owned for profit, or they may be held by non-profit organizations, like churches, schools or the local government. Examples of center-based child day cares 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.

Pros and cons of in-home day care vs. day care centers

We asked a few experts to share the pros and cons of both types of day care. Carolyn Stolov, family-life expert at Care.com; Kathie Anderson, an in-home day care provider in Austin, Texas; and Donna Van Hall, director of Graves Mill Early Learning Center in Forest, Virginia, offered their expertise.

 

DAY CARE CENTER

IN-HOME DAY CARE

PROS:

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: Child day care centers must meet standards for cleanliness and safety, and comply with building codes.

Quality teachers: The teachers in child day cares may have a stronger education background and take ongoing classes to fulfill requirements.

Age-appropriate curriculum: Children are often in age-based classrooms,  learning activities, outdoor play, arts and crafts and activities to develop gross and fine motor skills.

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

Cost: Child day care centers are commercial properties, so overhead is higher than a private home, making the cost of a child day care 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 child day care centers often teach a curriculum, children may engage in less free play.

PROS:

More individual attention: "Children are often a face in the crowd in a day care center," Anderson says. "In a family child care home, we really get to know each other well."

Affordability: The cost of in-home day care 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 day care provider to change the schedule.

Siblings can remain together: This is an important factor for many parents, especially those whose children are very close.

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

Limited backup plans: Most in-home child care providers have a backup plan in the event of illness. However, emergencies can happen.

Less regulation: Licensing of in-home day care programs varies state-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 all individuals. You may find the provider's philosophy isn't in line with your family's style.

Whatever day care option you choose, make safety your No. 1 priority. Check 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.

Read next: How much does in-home day care cost?

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