Looking for some extra help with your children? Learn more about the different types of care options—such as nannies, babysitters, au pairs, mother’s helpers, and daycare centers—and choose the best one for your family. 

By Kate Bayless
Updated July 13, 2020
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Whether you're returning to the office or looking for an extra pair of hands to help around the house, child care providers can help give you a break. But you may be overwhelmed by the variety of choices, from nannies and au pairs to mother's helpers and family daycare centers.

The good news: Whether you can spend a little or a lot, and whether you need full-time care or part-time assistance, there’s a provider who can meet your needs. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of child care, and find out which is the best fit for your family. 

Mother's Helper

A mother's helper is a child care provider who watches and entertains a child while a parent is still home. These helpers are often younger than the parent (perhaps around junior high age) and may lack the experience of an established babysitter. Because they’re usually not watching a child on their own, rates may range from free (where the helper merely wants to gain babysitting experience) to just a few dollars an hour. Your best bet for finding a mother's helper is to ask trusted parents in your social circle who know preteens looking for child care experience.

Babysitter

A babysitter is an individual hired by the hour to care for children. They may work during the day or night, and they may watch the child at your home or at theirs. "Babysitting is usually a part-time job that a person holds in addition to many other things, such as attending school or working other jobs," says Lindsay Heller, a child-care consultant at The Nanny Doctor and a licensed clinical psychologist. A babysitter's main duty, of course, is to care for your child, which can include responsibilities such as preparing food, putting kids down for naps or bedtime, assisting with homework, or providing transportation to activities. 

Pay rates depend on your location, the age of the babysitter and the children, and the number of children being watched. According to UrbanSitter’s 2020 National Child Care Rate Survey, babysitters make an average of $17.73 per hour for one child, $20.30 per hour for two children, and $21.49 per hour for three children.

If you can't get recommendations from friends or family, check sites such as UrbanSitter, Care.com, or Sittercity. Some of these sites provide background checks and references; they may also charge you a fee to access the sitter's contact information.

Nanny

Hate having to rush your tot out the door in the morning? Consider a nanny. "A nanny or in-home provider may be more convenient for parents," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. A nanny typically has a regular and more involved relationship with the family. They may watch the child for multiple hours every day or on a consistent weekly schedule. "In contrast to a babysitter, nannies [have] decided to dedicate themselves to the child care profession," Heller says. "In addition to experience, some nannies will have a formal education in child development or related fields. They will engage in developmental activities as well as possibly cook or clean for the family." 

Nannies usually charge by the hour, but may be paid once a week or once a month. Rates are often higher than that for a typical babysitter. Hire an agency if you want someone else to take care of background and reference checks. Otherwise, try online resources such as Care.com if you want to browse candidates on your own, or check with local college campuses to see if any students with flexible schedules are looking for work.

Au Pair

An au pair is a person from a different country who provides live-in child care for a family. In French, the phrase au pair means "at par," or "equal to" as the au pair is supposed to be considered a member of the family. Au pair duties can include anything related to caring for the children, but usually do not include house cleaning.

In the United States, the host family provides room and board as well as a stipend based on minimum wage in exchange for a set number of child-care hours. There are also additional costs such as agency fees, a mandatory educational stipend, and travel expenses. Families must find au pairs through one of a dozen or so approved agencies that are regulated by the U.S. Department of State.

Daycare Center

A daycare center provides child care in a nonresidential, drop-off facility. Some daycare centers allow for hour-by-hour care, but most provide either half- or full-day services that include activities, meals, naps, and possibly outings. "Centers can provide more structured learning opportunities, and good opportunities for social development with other children," Willer says. 

Daycare centers have monthly fees that vary greatly based on the location and type of care provided. Use recommendations from friends, search engines, or lists from state licensing agencies to find daycare centers near you.

Family Daycare

A family daycare center, or home daycare center, is child care provided in someone else's home. Family daycares can be cheaper than a traditional daycare center and may be conveniently located in your neighborhood. They often have fewer children, which may make some kids and parents feel more comfortable. "A quality, licensed family child care will provide much more than mere group babysitting," says Barbara Sawyer, director of special projects at National Association for Family Child Care. 

Many state licensing regulations require that family daycares provide age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate activities for the children and require training for providers. Because family daycare centers often don't advertise much, you can find them by word-of-mouth or on websites like Angie's List.

Relative Care

Relative care is when a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or other family member helps with the children. This type of care is beneficial, as someone you already know is caring for your child, but it can also add potential stress to a family relationship if you find it difficult to communicate your expectations to a relative. Some family members (especially ones who are retired) may be willing to provide child care for free, but you should be prepared to discuss some form of payment or compensation for their time and effort.

Child Care Swap

A child care swap involves two or more parents alternating days to watch each other's children in addition to their own. These arrangements are free and can be very convenient, but they require clear communication between the parents involved about expectations, availability, and reciprocity.

The Bottom Line

So which type of child care should you choose? The good news is that one style of child care provider is not better than another. Ultimately, the best child care provider will be the one who matches your family's needs and availability, who is trustworthy, and who can provide consistent, attentive care for your child.

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