Whether you're heading back to work full-time, planning a night out with your significant other, or looking for an extra pair of hands to keep older kids entertained while you take care of a newborn, child-care providers can help give you a break. But you may be overwhelmed with the variety of child care choices. Should you choose a nanny or an au pair? A mother's helper or a relative? Which type of child care is the best fit -- and what is the real difference between them?
The good news: Whether you can spend a little or a lot, whether you need full-time care or you just an hour of help here and there, there is a provider who can meet your needs.
A mother's helper is a child-care provider who helps to watch and entertain a child during the day while a parent is still at home. A mother's helper is often younger than the parent, perhaps around junior high age. Because mother's helpers are often younger, lack the experience of an established babysitter, and are 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 of or have preteens looking for child-care experience.
A babysitter is any individual you hire by the hour to care for your child. A babysitter may work during the day or night and may watch the child at your home or at hers. "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 (nannydoctor.com) 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 or from activities. Pay rates depend on where you live in the country, the age of the babysitter, and the number of children being watched, plus their ages. Most rates are hourly and average from $5 to $20, depending on the region and the age of the babysitter, but $10 to $12 an hour is the most common. If you can't get recommendations from friends or family, check sites such as SeekingSitters.com or SitterCity.com. Some of these sites provide background checks and references; they may also charge you a fee to access the sitter's contact info.
Hate having to rush your tot out the door in the morning to get to day care? 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. She 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, averaging $10 to $25 an hour. To find a nanny, 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.
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 and not just hired help. 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.
A day-care center provides child care in a nonresidential, drop-off facility. Some day-care centers may allow for short, hour-by-hour care, but most provide either half- or full-day care that includes activities, meals, naps, and possibly outings. "Centers can provide more structured learning opportunities, and good opportunities for social development with other children," Willer says. Day-care 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 day-care centers near you.
A family day-care center, or home day-care center, is child care provided in someone else's home. Family day cares can be cheaper than a day-care center and may be conveniently located in your neighborhood. They often have fewer children in their care, which may make some children and parents feel more comfortable because the home setting, with familiar places and spaces, can help some kids transition more easily into day care. "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 day cares provide age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate activities for the children and have required training for providers. Because family day-care centers often don't advertise much, you can find them by word-of-mouth or on Angie's List.
Relative care is when a grandparent, aunt, or other family member watches and provides care to your children. This type of care is beneficial, as someone you already know and trust is watching 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. A relative (especially one who is 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.
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.
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.