We've got the answers to the stuff you worry about most when it comes to childcare.

children at daycare
Credit: Shannon Greer

All-in-the-Family Daycare

Q. My mom has offered to watch my 15-month-old when I go back to work next month. Part of me loves the idea: I know she adores my daughter, plus we'd save a bundle on childcare. But I can think of potential problems too -- like the fact that she might spoil my baby by letting her eat junk or skip her nap. I can't decide whether this is a good idea!

A. Like you, lots of moms and dads see the benefits of an arrangement like this: There are more than twice as many parents using family members for childcare than there are using daycare centers. But you're smart to think about potential drawbacks too. It's one thing to dismiss a nanny you hired, but it's quite another to fire your mom.

So you really need to treat this in a businesslike way. Meet with your mother to discuss logistics: Even if she refuses to accept any payment, insist on supplying diapers, extra clothes, toys, and food (including healthy snacks.) Agree on a drop-off and pick-up schedule and be prepared to get there on time or call if you'll be delayed -- the same thing that you'd do for a paid childcare worker.

Talk to her about meals, activities, and discipline. Tell her what rules are really important to you and why: "Brenna really needs to nap in the afternoon because it helps her sleep better at night" or "If she eats chips when she's with you, it spoils her appetite for dinner." If it makes things less awkward, blame it on the experts: "Our pediatrician recommends..." or "I just read a new book on discipline, and the psychologist said..."

If you're still tentative -- and, really, you should be -- you might suggest giving it a try for two or three months. A wonderful grandma or a fabulous aunt doesn't always make the best daycare provider, and a trial period will give you both a chance to assess the arrangement and to call it quits (no hurt feelings!) if it isn't working.

The Sitter Down the Block

Q. A woman in my neighborhood watches children in her home. I was thinking of hiring her to take care of my 2-year-old when I go back to work, but I heard that she isn't licensed. Should I write her off completely?

A. Not necessarily. Having a license does provide a little reassurance: It means that your neighbor has had some kind of training in childcare, that there are limits on the number of kids she can care for, and that her home has been inspected to make sure it meets health and safety standards. But only 10 states actually require licensing for all childcare providers, and even among those, the requirement doesn't apply to people who watch fewer than four children. So just as having a license doesn't make a sitter Mary Poppins, not having one isn't reason enough to cross her off your list.

Still, take this as a sign that you need to be doubly diligent about checking her out. The first thing to learn is what kind of background she has: Ideally, you want a sitter who's had at least some training in child development and who has a track record in taking care of kids. (Many in-home caregivers are moms themselves, so talk to them about their thoughts and ideas on raising kids and make sure they're compatible with your own.)

Find out how many children she watches at any given time. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA,) a home daycare provider should never have more than six children total under age 5 -- with no more than two of those kids who are under age 2.

So far, so good? The next step is to visit her home to get a firsthand look at what goes on: Is the house neat, comfortable, and totally childproofed? Are the kitchen, bathrooms, and diapering area squeaky-clean? Are there enough age-appropriate toys for everyone?

Watch how she acts around the children. Is she calm or stressed? Is the television on all the time? Does she get lots of phone calls or visitors who distract her from the kids?

Then sit down with the sitter and really grill her. Ask what a typical day is like: Does she plan activities and structure the kids' time? Ask specific questions: How does she handle temper tantrums and squabbles over toys? What does she do if a child is cranky and crying? If she's also caring for her own children, how does she safeguard against favoritism? If her kids are older, who picks them up and drives them around after school?

Finally, talk to other families whose kids she's watched: Do they seem enthusiastic? Did their children like her? If they no longer use her, why did they stop? What do they consider her strong and weak points? If they're reluctant to talk, or if you suspect they're not telling the whole story, trust your gut and find someone else.

If you do hire this woman, continue to keep an eye on things, especially in the first few months. Drop by unannounced from time to time to get a real idea of what your child's day is like. And watch for clues about how your child is adjusting. If he consistently cries and begs to stay home, you might need to reconsider the arrangement. But if he's happy and thriving, you'll know that -- license or not -- you've made a good choice.

When a Teacher Leaves

Q. I love my son's daycare center, but it seems like the staff is always coming and going. Just last week, we found out his favorite teacher is leaving to take a new job. How can I help him adjust to this big change?

A. If it's any consolation, you're not the only family dealing with this issue. "Staff turnover is a challenge that childcare programs face nationwide," says Kim Means, associate executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington, D.C. "Early-childhood teachers make so little money that they frequently have to leave to take a higher-paying job."

That's certainly understandable -- but it makes things tough for kids who bond with their caregivers. So don't be surprised if your child reacts to his teacher's departure by crying, acting out, or becoming clingy at home. "A good daycare center will work with kids to ease the transition, and you should do the same at home," says Linda Smith, NACCRRA executive director.

Tell your son you understand why he's sad. Help him make a going-away gift for the teacher, like a card or a drawing. Take a photo of the two of them, and put it in a scrapbook for him to keep. And, above all, reassure your child that his new teacher will be just as wonderful -- and that his daily routine won't change at all.

Sitters & Salaries

Q. Child care is so expensive! Do we have to pay our in-home sitter for days when we don't need her -- like holidays or when one of the kids is sick and I stay home?

A. Do you have to? No, not from a legal standpoint. A sitter or an at-home caregiver is entitled to be paid only for the hours she actually works.

Should you want to? Absolutely. Look at it this way: You expect your employer to pay you for sick days and vacation time, don't you? Taking care of your child is your sitter's job -- and she relies on her salary just as you rely on yours.

So you certainly should pay her -- and not only for ethical reasons, but for personal ones as well. "Skimping on her salary sends the message that you don't respect her, and this could affect the quality of her work," says Guy Maddalone, CEO of GTM Household Employment Experts, a payroll service in Clifton Park, New York. By contrast, paying your sitter fairly (including giving her overtime, raises, and even bonuses when she goes above and beyond) will earn her loyalty and goodwill -- which is priceless for your family.

Germs at Daycare

Q. I keep my daughter home from daycare whenever she has the sniffles, but not everyone is so considerate. How can I keep her from getting infected by other kids' germs?

A. Sorry to break the bad news -- you probably can't. But here's something that might make you feel better: The everyday bugs that kids pick up in daycare actually may be a good thing. While preschoolers in daycare catch more colds than kids who stay home, research suggests that they get sick less often once they enter grade school. Why? Each bug they encounter helps build up their immune system so they can better fight off other germs.

Still, it's important for your daycare provider to take steps to minimize the spread of germs: She should insist that the children wash their hands frequently -- and follow that rule herself. She shouldn't let children share cups, utensils, or clothing. She should clean up quickly after meals, and keep bathrooms and changing areas spick-and-span. (Talk to her if you feel she's negligent in these areas.)

Finally, your caregiver needs to have a firm sick-day policy and to communicate it clearly to parents: It's okay to send a kid to daycare if she has the sniffles, but if she's running a fever or has a rash, an earache, diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal pain, that child should stay home -- for her comfort as well as for the health and safety of the other kids.

In Case of an Emergency

Q. This may sound totally nuts, but with all the news about hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks, I worry about my child's safety in daycare if there's ever a disaster in our area.

A. It doesn't sound nuts at all, since you never know what might happen. Some daycare centers actually have a disaster plan in place, but many don't. So make sure yours does -- and ask if it's more than a fire evacuation plan. Some things to consider:

  • How would you be notified if a disaster hit, and what would your provider do if she couldn't reach you or if you were stranded?
  • Does the daycare center or family home have an emergency kit stocked with flashlights, a battery-operated radio, and enough bottled water, food, and other supplies to last for 72 hours?
  • If an evacuation were ordered, how would your caregiver manage to leave with the kids and where would she go?
  • Does she have contact information for you, your spouse, and your extended family?
  • Does she have your health insurance info, as well as written permission to authorize medical care for your child?
  • Does she keep phone numbers for police, firefighters, and other emergency responders on cell and landline speed dial?
  • You may never need to use this plan. But if you do, you'll be glad you thought of it in advance.

Daycare: Time for TV?

Q. At home, I let our kids -- ages 2 and 5 -- watch only an hour of TV a day. But when I pick them up from their babysitter's house after work, they're usually parked in front of the tube. Advice, please!

A. Some experts say that kids 2 and under shouldn't watch any television in daycare at all and that older kids should only be allowed to see an occasional educational program. Other experts are a little looser in their recommendations. But what really matters here is what you want -- so sit down with your sitter and spell out your limits on television time.

If she blows you off ("Oh, all the kids watch Blue's Clues"), seems resentful, or, worse, just ignores your request, then that's your cue to find someone else. But if your sitter respects your desires, try to consider her needs as well: Does she let the children watch television to give them some downtime or to allow her to clean up before pick-up time? If so, maybe you don't have to demand an all-out ban on the tube.

Suggest that the children watch a program on PBS Kids, for example, or offer to bring her videos that you think are appropriate. And continue to monitor the situation by dropping by unexpectedly from time to time. Ideally, your children will be doing a craft project or playing outside -- not sitting on the sofa, eyes glued to the flat screen!

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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