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Finding and Choosing Child Care

Choosing child care is one of the most important decisions your family will make. It is important to look at several different options. What is good for other children may not be the best for your child. You will need to compare price, hours, quality of program, and location of different child care options. Child care options include:

  • center-based child care
  • family child care
  • in-home child care
  • before and after school child care.

If possible, both parents should participate in the child care selection process. Your child should be present for at least some of the time while you observe and interview caregivers.

When choosing child care you should:

  • Make a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers of child care providers in your area.
  • Research child care licensing regulations for your state.
  • Find out about the training and experience providers have in caring for children.
  • Contact several providers and make an appointment to spend an hour or two with each. If possible, visit when children are present.
  • Meet with the directors and staff or caregiver to discuss your expectations.
  • Spend an hour or two observing active and quiet activities at all facilities you are seriously considering.
  • Review the licensing files, if possible.
  • Ask for references and check them.
  • Talk with other parents from the facilities.
  • Above all, trust your instincts and ask questions.

What is center-based child care?
Child care centers provide an organized group setting away from home. They may also be called preschools, nursery schools, or learning centers. Most centers take children 3 to 5 years of age who are toilet-trained. Some have infant or toddler nurseries for children younger than 3.

Child care centers are licensed by the state. They must meet safety requirements and the center staff must have certain kinds of training. The states also have rules about the number of adults needed to take care of a certain number of children. Check your state's requirements for center-based infant and toddler care.

Preschools and child care centers can be commercially owned or sponsored by a community organization such as a church or recreation center. Your employer may have an on-site child care center or a reimbursement account to help you save money to pay for child care.


  • Usually has planned program of activities and greater choice of play materials.
  • Caregivers are usually trained and experienced in child development.
  • Licensing is required, ensuring minimum health, safety and enrollment standards.
  • Usually less expensive than in-home care. Your child can play with other children.
  • Generally open 12 hours per day year-round with both full-and half-day schedules available (nursery schools usually open half-days and closed the same months as regular school).
  • Closures due to caregiver being ill are unlikely.
  • Staff is supervised.


  • Your child may be less comfortable in a group setting and receive less attention than in an informal home environment.
  • Your child will be around more children and so will probably be sick more often. When your child is sick you will not be able to send him to the child care center.
  • You may need to agree to year-round day care even if you don't need it.
  • You may need to pay a registration fee. The center hours and days may not be exactly what you need.
  • Staff turnover can be high so your child may not have a consistent caregiver.
  • This usually costs more than family child care.

What is family child care?
Family child care is done by providers who are licensed to care for children in their home. The caregiver is often a mother with her own small children. Family child care providers are licensed by the state. The states also have rules about the number of adults needed to take care of a certain number of children. Generally, a child care home should not have more than 6 children per adult caregiver, including the caregiver's own children. No caregiver working alone should care for more than 2 children who are under 2 years of age.


  • Provides home-like environment (very important for infants and toddlers).
  • Greater flexibility regarding ages and hours of operation.
  • May be licensed by the state, ensuring minimum health, safety, and enrollment standards.
  • May cost less than center-based care.
  • Your child is in a smaller group of children which will allow more individual attention and less exposure to illness.
  • May have more flexible hours than center-based care.


  • The caregiver will not always be available (illness, vacation).
  • The caregiver may stop providing services without much notice.
  • The caregiver may not have appropriate training or experience.
  • The caregiver may not be able to offer all options provided by center-based care.
  • The caregiver is not supervised directly and may not be licensed.

What is in-home child care?
In-home care means hiring someone to care for your infant or young toddler in your own home. Your child will be in a familiar place and get lots of personal attention. The caregiver may be a friend, neighbor, relative, or professional nanny. You can hire someone for half-day, all-day, or before or after school. If you hire the person through an agency, a background check should have already been done. Some states have resources that allow you to do background checks.


  • Care in a familiar place. This is very important for infants and toddlers.
  • Your child should receive enough personal attention.
  • May be the most choice for 3 or more children.
  • Your child can be cared for when sick.
  • There is less exposure to illness from other children.


  • Relatively hard to find a caregiver.
  • May be the most costly choice for 1 or 2 children.
  • You are responsible for all fees, taxes, social security, and sometimes benefits of the caregiver.
  • The caregiver may not always be available (illness, vacation), and turnover may be high.
  • Your child may not get the stimulation of other children.
  • The caregiver may not have appropriate training or experience. It may be hard to change caregivers if it is a relative or friend.

What is before- and after-school child care?
Before and after child care is generally available for children 6 to 12 years of age. This type of child care is usually connected with a day care center, school, or community agency, but may be provided in a home setting. Programs offer age-appropriate activities in the hours before and after school. Care is also provided holidays, school breaks, and vacations. Arrangements tend to be flexible and based on family needs.

Where do I find information about child care in my area?
You can find information about child care options from:

  • State Department of Social Services, Human Services, or Health (list of licensed day care homes)
  • United Way (information and referral services)
  • Religious organizations
  • Child development departments of local colleges
  • School counselor (before and after school care)
  • Your employer
  • Telephone book ("Child Care, Camps, Nanny Services, Schools - Preschool")
  • Junior League
  • PTA
  • Local child care council
  • Pediatrician
  • Newspaper/bulletin board ads
  • Word-of-mouth (friends, relatives, other parents).

For child care standards see:
NACCRA, National Association of Child Care Reports & Referral Agencies
Web site: http://www.naccrra.org/

National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care
Web site: http://nrc.uchsc.edu/

National Association of Education for Young Children
Web site: http://naeyc.org/

National Association for Family Child Care 
Web site: http://nafcc.org/