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The ABCs of Daycare

At this point you might be having trouble believing your due date will ever arrive, so it may not have occurred to you to start looking for someone to care for your baby when you return to work. However, as any experienced working parent can tell you, searching for the right daycare solution is a tough task. It's difficult both logistically and emotionally. You're going to have to find a loving caregiver whose schedule and values match your own.

Luckily, there are more options than ever, and the past two decades of research has shown us that high-quality daycare is actually beneficial for most children. While some research, including a study conducted recently by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, suggests that children who spend more than 30 hours a week in child care are more likely to be aggressive and disobedient by the time they reach kindergarten, that same research also pointed to daycare gains, like better language, problem-solving skills, and memory development. The view held by most researchers is that the most critical influence on a child's behavior is his home environment, whether he's in full-time daycare or at home with his mother.

So how do you find the right daycare for you? Here are some options to consider:

Au pairs and nannies. We'd all love to have Mary Poppins floating in on her umbrella to tidy up the nursery and have the baby asleep by sunset. If you have an extra bedroom and don't mind sharing your living space, an au pair can be ideal. An au pair is typically a foreign woman, working through an agency, who gets a small salary and room and board in exchange for daycare. If you don't have the space to house an au pair, or want more privacy and don't mind shelling out the extra money, a day nanny might be the solution, especially if you also have an older child who needs to be driven to various preschool classes and activities.

Pros:

  • Hours can be more flexible than daycare centers
  • One-on-one care for your baby
  • Some housekeeping services and cooking
  • Baby can stay home, so there's no need to carry supplies to daycare--or bring viruses home

Cons:

  • Difficult to meet in advance if au pair is from a foreign country
  • Someone else is running your house
  • Her professional training might be limited
  • May have to pay taxes for a nanny
  • May have to tack on an agency fee

Daycare centers. If the daycare center has a high-quality staff, your child will probably develop an early zest for learning and great socialization skills. However, daycare centers can be financially out of reach for many parents of infants unless they're subsidized or associated with your workplace. That's because state laws require such small infant-to-caregiver ratios (as well they should) that rates charged for newborns can be double the rate charged for toddlers.

Pros:

  • Trained staff
  • On-site perks for older infants and toddlers like art supplies, computers, toys
  • May be subsidized or convenient if affiliated with workplace
  • Structured routines make it easier to keep baby happy at home

Cons:

  • Have to commute to daycare before commuting to work
  • Babies have to go with the center's nap and feeding schedule
  • May have waiting list

Family daycare. Family daycare doesn't necessarily mean your own family but a family-like setting, where a licensed daycare provider takes children into her home. For young infants, family daycare can offer the perfect mix of a calm family environment with the stimulation of other children. The downside for parents is sometimes a feeling of guilt that it's not you staying home--or discomfort with the way someone else is "mothering" your child.

Pros:

  • Usually less expensive than daycare centers or an at-home nanny
  • Close, loving bonds among caregiver, other children, and your baby
  • Relaxed environment

Cons:

  • If your caregiver's own kids get sick, you might be out of daycare
  • Quality of care is highly variable from one caregiver to the next
  • You might feel competitive with her

Questions to Ask a Daycare Provider

  • How long have you been doing daycare?
  • Can I visit my baby anytime?
  • How often do you let babies cry themselves to sleep?
  • May I give you breast milk in bottles for my baby?
  • How do you usually spend your day with a baby?
  • What credentials and references do you provide?
  • Do you have infant CPR training?

Your best bet for finding the highest-quality daycare is by word of mouth: Ask your friends, your family, your provider, and your workplace colleagues for suggestions. You can also contact the organizations below.

Daycare centers:

National Association for the Education of Young Children

800-424-2460

www.naeyc.org

Child Care Aware

800-424-2246

www.childcareaware.org

Au pairs:

The U.S. Information Agency cultural-exchange page

http://exchanges.state.gov

Day nannies and family daycare providers:

Yellow Pages, word of mouth, bulletin boards in pediatricians' offices or churches, and the employment section of your local newspaper

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

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