The Guide To Figuring Out Daycare

Like so many things in life, you just don't know what you don't know when you set out to find child care. Between the fact that your child will be spending many hours alone with whichever place you choose, and that it will be one of the most expensive bills you will be paying each month, it can feel like a high pressure decision...that you know nothing about.

So how should you figure out which daycare is right for you? What do you need to ask daycare providers before enrolling your child? Where do you even start? We've got all that and more below.

 
 
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To Daycare or Nanny? (Or Nanny Share?)

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The first decision you have to make is whether you want to put your child in a daycare, hire a nanny, or join a nanny share in the area. How do you make up your mind? Let’s start with the basics.

  • Daycare: Several infants are watched in classroom-like environment
     
  • Nanny: Watches your child (or children) alone, often in your house
     
  • Nanny Share:  Two to three families hire one nanny to watch their children, usually in one of the family’s homes.

Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to each option. Here we break down some of the biggest differences.

  • Cost: Often times the decision between daycare and nannies can come down to cost. In most cities in the United States, nannies are more expensive than daycare. Nanny shares are more affordable, since you are splitting the cost of the nanny’s salary. In some areas you might be able to find a nanny share that costs less than daycare, but in some cases, it might cost a bit more than the most expensive daycare.
     
  • Regulations: Daycares are licensed by state governments in the United States, though what meets the definition of a “daycare” can vary widely. These centers can be subject to surprise inspections from government officials to ensure they are following regulations. Those regulations can include things like what education requirements staff must meet, or how big the space must be. Nannies, on the other hand, don’t typically get licensed by the state and aren’t subject to inspections.
     
  • Taxes and Payment: When you a hire a nanny, you will be directly paying the nanny and responsible for reporting that income to the IRS. The same is true for nanny shares, which can be more complicated because there are multiple families involved. If you go with daycare, you don’t have the same reporting responsibility – the daycare is a business and must deal with taxes itself.
     
  • Sick Days: If your child gets sick, a nanny may still be willing to watch them. That won’t be the case with a daycare, which will send sick children home and require them to stay home until they are better, in an effort to stop the illness from spreading through the entire center.
     
  • Time Off: On the flip side, if your nanny gets sick, you will need to find back-up care or take off work. The same goes with vacations and any days off that your nanny might need. And in some areas, it is customary to give your nanny paid vacation time.

 


Types: Center Versus In-Home

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There are two main types of daycare: centers and in-home providers.

Daycare centers are what you might typically think of when it comes to daycare. Centers operate in a space that is dedicated to watching children and can have several different classrooms for children of different ages.

In-home daycares are run in the providers’ home. They are often smaller than a center, and are typically less expensive. But unlike nannies, they are licensed by the state and can face surprise inspections. They will often have a mix of different aged children together, instead of separate classrooms for different aged children.


Location: Home or Office?

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If you will be picking up and dropping off your child on your commute, the next big decision you’ll face is where you’d rather have your child during the day.

If you choose child care near your workplace, that means you might be able to visit your child during the day (if they allow drop-in visits) and you won’t have to leave work as early to pick them up at the end of the day.

The downsides to having them near the office is if you are sick or want to work from home – you will still have to make that commute to get them to daycare. Ditto if they get sick in the middle of the day and the pediatrician is closer to home. And if it’s a long ride, having a crying baby can add more stress to the grind of the daily commute.

If the daycare is near your home, you will have to leave work earlier to make it by pick-up time. But if you need to stay home for the day, then daycare isn’t far away. And your baby will spend less time being carted to and fro on your commute.


Cost: Show Them the Money

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There is no getting around it, daycare is expensive. Costs vary widely by region, meaning what can cost $500 per week in one city can cost as little as $250 or as much as $1,000 per week in another. Generally, the cost of daycare matches the area’s cost of living. The more expensive it is to rent or buy a home, the more expensive it will be to find daycare.

So how do you know how much a daycare actually charges? This often requires getting the director of the daycare on the phone, which can be a game of phone tag during business hours. Some locations will actually require you to take a tour in person before you’ll find out the price.

You may have to pay tuition every week, twice a month or once a month. In the Washington D.C. area, daycare costs on average of $350 per week, but there is wide variation in the area. It definitely pays to shop around, so check out our report on the State of Daycare DC for more information.

In addition to regular tuition, daycare can charge additional fees for activities or supplies like books, a yearly registration fee, and may require a deposit when you first enroll.


Hours: The Drop-Off and Pick-Up Hustle

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Daycares typically set a hard deadline for when they open and when they close. And there often isn’t a grace period -- you can’t drop off your child a little early one morning, nor can you pick up just a few minutes late.

The average pick-up and drop-off times in Washington D.C. area are 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. But those times can vary, with some locations not opening until 8 a.m. or staying open as late as 7 p.m.

It might not seem like a big difference now, but it all depends on your job, your commute, and where your daycare fits in to that. An extra 30 minutes for pick-up can make a big difference on how stressful your trip home might be.

If you are late to pick-up, some daycares will charge you a fee for every minute after pick-up time. At a certain point they will have to call for back-up help, which in some states is the police or social services. That only happens in extreme cases, but keep in mind that most daycares take pick-up time seriously. There can be more flexibility with in-home providers, but it is something you must establish clearly with them at the start.


Days Closed: Holidays and Vacation

In addition to the daily pick-up and drop-off times, many daycares will close on federal holidays, and some will take additional time in the summer when schools are closed. And you don’t get a break on tuition for those days, in most places in is included in the overall cost.

You will want to find out how often the daycare is closed and make sure it works with your schedule. For example, if the daycare is closed on federal holidays but you usually have to work those days, you will need to find backup care.


Extras: Weekends and Babysitting

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Some daycares will offer extra care on the weekends. For example, one center in Northern Virginia offers “date night” babysitting on some Saturday nights for a small charge. You get the comfort of knowing your child is with familiar faces, and its cheaper than a babysitter.

Many daycare teachers will also offer to babysit children on the side. This isn’t necessarily an official service of the daycare, so it’s something to ask about once until you’ve established a relationship with the staff.


Recommendations: Ask Friends, Look for Parent Groups

Personal recommendations are a good way to find providers that you feel comfortable leaving your child with. So how do you go about getting those recommendations? It can be hard, because even if you’ve lived in an area for several years, you might not necessarily know parents of young children in your immediate neighborhood.

To get those recommendations, start by asking friends and coworkers which places they’ve liked, or if they can connect you with anyone in your area. Look for a parenting list-serv in your neighborhood, and for local parenting groups on Facebook.

Keep in mind that it is not the end of the world if  you can’t get any personal recommendations. In order to be licensed, most daycares must pass regular state inspections. And if something is wrong, parents can (and do) report problems to the state regulatory agencies. You can always check past inspection reports to get a feel for what issues the center might have, if any.

And if it feels like all you find are negative reviews or bad experiences, keep in mind that daycare centers, even the biggest ones, typically have less than 100 kids. That means it can be hard to get trustworthy ratings – one or two angry customers can really sway the online reputation of a business that size. It's not quite like a restaurant that will see hundreds of different customers a week.


Drop-In Policy

Another policy to ask about is if you're allowed to stop by and visit your child in the middle of the day. This might seem like a given, but a fair number of daycare providers will restrict this due to lack of space and/or the fact that it can be disruptive to the classroom. If you are planning to have your baby near your office and like the idea of stopping by on your lunch break or nursing during the day, you’ll want to find out if that is allowed and what the policy is.


Daily Reports: What Happened During the Day?

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When you have an infant in daycare, you’ll probably want to know what they are up to all day. Whether or not they nap enough (or too much) could affect how much they sleep at night, the number of wet and dirty diapers is still an important way to make sure your baby is well hydrated, and so on.

Daycares will usually have a system to let you know what your baby was up to throughout the day. The basics should cover when they slept, when they ate and drank (and how much), and how many wet/dirty diapers they had that day. Some places will go above and beyond that, sending you a picture for every day, and a report on activities your baby did throughout the day.

And while daycares are not the most tech-advanced businesses, some places have apps that let parents virtually check-in on their kids during the day, or access daily reports online.


Part-Time Care Options

You might be easing back in to work and want to consider part-time care. Unfortunately, many daycare providers require you to pay for care five days a week, regardless of your schedule.

That being said, it's not as impossible as it may seem at first. In-home daycares are typically the most willing to do a part-time set up, so it’s worth zeroing in on those providers if you are striking out elsewhere. There are also more drop-in daycares popping up in cities, as well as coworking spaces that provide childcare.


Infant Classes: Mobile vs. Nonmobile

If you are looking at larger daycares (i.e. more than 10 kids), you might find the infants split in to different classrooms based on their mobility. The “nonmobile” babies aren’t crawling yet, but might be rolling or holding their heads up. In the nonmobile room, babies spend a lot of their day lounging on boppies or in bumbo-like seats or their cribs.

Once babies start crawling, they move up to the mobile infants’ room, where there will be a mix of rollers, crawlers and walkers. They might start having a more structured schedule and more activities in that classroom.

In both classrooms, adults may be asked to take off their shoes or cover them with booties to keep the floors as clean as possible. That may not seem like a big deal now, but you'd be surprised at how quickly you'll start planning your footwear around the challenge of holding baby and their gear while also wiggling out of your shoes.


Food: Snacks and Lunch

When your baby is just starting daycare, they are likely still on their liquid diet of breastmilk and/or formula that you will pack every day. But as they get older and start eating more solid foods, you’ll have to start packing snacks and lunch.

There is a lot of variation on what daycares will offer. Some will offer breakfast, lunch and a snack, and include the cost of that food in tuition. Others will require you to bring everything yourself or pay an additional fee for food. It’s worth finding this out and keeping it in mind as you compare tuition costs – a place that is a little more expensive but includes meals could end up being cheaper (and less work) than a place where you have to make all meals yourself.

Along with whether or not the location offers food, you might want to know what kind of dietary restrictions and/or general food philosophies the daycare center has if that is important to you. Request a copy of the monthly menu.


Stuff: The Gear You'll Need

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Packing for daycare requires more stuff than you’ll remember bringing to school. Every place varies, but here are a few things you’ll likely be asked to bring:

Breast milk and/or formula: The #1 thing you’ll need is what your baby will eat throughout the day. That means bringing a few pre-made bottles with breast milk or formula. And that means you’ll need around three to four clean bottles every morning. You’ll likely need to add your baby’s name and the date to each bottle. Permanent market can work for names, though it will come off in the dishwasher after a few washes. Grease pencils are good for plastic bottles, and you can also find labels that will survive the wash.

Diapers, wipes and diaper cream: You’ll also need to bring a supply of diapers for baby to wear throughout the day. Some locations require hourly changing for infants, even if the diaper isn’t wet. So that means you’ll be using more diapers than you probably use at home. You’ll also often need to supply wipes and diaper cream. Like the bottles, these will likely need names written on them as well.

Back-up formula: Even if you are exclusively breastfeeding, some daycare providers will require you to bring back-up formula in case of emergency (i.e. the power goes out and the breast milk isn’t kept cold).

Change of clothes: Babies get messy and will inevitably need a new outfit one day (or several – some daycare providers will have you bring 2-3 changes at once). Like everything else, label it.

Sheets/Blankets/Pacifiers: The rules for this will vary, but some daycare providers will require that you regularly bring clean sheets for baby’s crib at the center. They may also allow infants to have their own blankets and pacifiers for nap time.

Health records: The requirements for what records the daycare providers must hold vary from state to state, but you will likely need to bring some records from your pediatrician, especially on vaccinations.


Health and the Sick Policy

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Daycares should have clear rules about when a child is too sick to attend or needs to be sent home in the middle of the day.

For most babies, starting daycare will be the most exposure to germs that their immune systems have had. That means they are probably going to get sick. (It’s good to mentally prepare for the onslaught of colds and rashes. On the plus side, they will have better immunity when they start school!)

Daycare providers will call you to pick up your baby for a variety of reasons, ranging from a temperature that reaches fever level to just seeming not well. The provider should be able to explain clearly what their rule is and how and when they decide to call the parents.

And lastly, once baby has gone home sick, or gotten sick over the weekend, they will likely need to stay home the next day, depending on the provider’s rules. For example, some daycare providers will require that you keep your baby home for 24 hours after a fever or bring a doctor’s note that they can return after a rash, and so on.


Tours: What to Ask

Once you find a daycare you like, it is common to go see the place in-person. Some providers will require you to take a tour before you can apply.

Tours are usually in the morning or early afternoon, when they kids are at the center but parents aren’t doing a lot of dropping off and picking up.

You’ll want to note if the space looks clean and orderly, and if the staff are friendly and seem good with children. Think about the different facets of care outlined above in this guide, and pick those that are most important to you. For example, do they have back-up staff when a teacher is out? What is their sick policy for the children? Do they have snacks or meals?


Applications and Waitlists: Getting In and Holding Your Spot

Once you’ve settled on a few places you like, it’s time to apply for a spot. Daycare providers’ first question will often be when you are looking to start your child. For the providers, it's often easier to give you a good estimate of when you can start if you are looking for care in the next few weeks. The further out you need to start, the harder it might be for the daycare to predict what spots they’ll have open.

Most applications for daycare are still on paper and require the basics on where you live and where you work. You may have to pay a fee to apply. If you are looking for care a few months early, you will likely be placed on the daycare’s waiting list. Sometimes being on the list (and staying on it) is free, sometimes it costs anywhere from $10 to $100.

In some areas, like Manhattan, daycare centers don't maintain waiting lists but require a nonrefundable deposit of about one month’s tuition to hold your child’s spot. That can cut down on people playing the waiting list game (i.e. getting on 5 lists and hoping for the best) but is also expensive.