Child Care Showdown: Nannies vs. Day Care

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Tania Kolinko /

Of all the things parents agonize over, child care has to top the list. It doesn’t matter whether you can’t get back to the office fast enough or are weeping at the thought of leaving your little ones. Everyone seems to worry about finding a safe and dependable provider.

If only it were as easy as finding a provider you like. You also have to find one you can afford!

Assuming you don’t have doting grandparents nearby who can baby-sit for free, your choices likely boil down to a nanny, family day care or a day care center.

To help you navigate these options, we’ve broken down the basics of each choice and what you can expect to pay.

Nannies: Not just Mary Poppins

Your view of nannies is probably skewed by movies such as “Mary Poppins.” You may envision a nanny as the live-in governess who sings, smiles and practically serves as an extra parent. However, in reality a nanny is simply a child care worker who comes to your house to care for your children exclusively.

While some modern nannies will still move in with you, Webb reports that “come and go nannies” are the most common. In fact, the 2013 INA Salary and Benefits Survey found that 90 percent of nannies say they live outside their employer’s home.

For parents already stretched thin, a nanny can simplify life. There’s no need to wake sleeping children at 6 a.m. There’s no need to rush from work so you can reach the day care center by 5:59 p.m. Depending on their work agreement, some nannies may also do light household work in addition to watching the kids.

Before you run out and hire the first nanny who comes your way, Webb advises caution.

“It’s gotten a little scary with the online world,” she says, noting there are few if any regulations in most states, which means anyone can call themselves a nanny. “Families need to be very careful and do their due diligence,” she says.

That due diligence includes very careful screening and reference checks. You’ll also need to do a background check, and not the kind you can pull up instantly online for $30. Spend a little more time and money, if needed, for a broad-based check that looks at criminal records in all states where your prospective nanny previously resided.

Webb also recommends asking behavioral interview questions such as inquiring into how a nanny would address a child screaming in a public place. Once the right nanny has been found, a written agreement should be drawn up to include:

  • Compensation.
  • Benefits.
  • Hours.
  • Expectations.
  • Confidentiality clause (i.e., what the nanny sees in your home stays within your walls).

As a final note, Webb adds: “Be realistic about expectations. She can’t mop the floor at the same time as she’s playing with your child.”

How much it costs

People think that nannies “only work for the rich and famous,” Webb says. Not so.

It may be true that middle-class families use nannies, but that doesn’t mean they come cheap. According to the 2013 INA Salary and Benefits Survey, 55 percent of nannies get paid hourly, and their average wage is $17.44 per hour. The median wage is $16. Wages can, of course, vary by region.

That means you could pay upward of $2,500 a month for a full-time nanny. Definitely not chump change, but it could be money well spent for some families.

Family day care: Home away from home

For those who can’t afford to have a nanny or who would rather not have a caregiver in their house, a family day care can offer a similar home environment.

Family day cares are run from a provider’s home. As with nannies, there can be a broad range of providers available when it comes to the quality of care. Some providers may play games and plan activities for their charges, while others may plop them in front of the TV for hours on end.

However, with day cares, you do have the benefit of government oversight, which can help you weed out the less desirable providers. Regulations vary by state, but family day cares are typically licensed by either the state or county. The licensing body may perform periodic inspections, maintain complaint logs and take disciplinary action, if needed.

Family day cares are also subject to adult/child ratios, which can vary by state. For example, in my state of Michigan, one family day care provider can watch up to six children, including his or her own, and no more than two infants or four toddlers at a time. If the provider has an adult helper or employee, they may be able to watch up to 12 children per day.

While the ratios are not as good as what you might have with a nanny, they may be better than those offered at centers.

Even with the government regulations, you’ll want to do your homework before selecting a family day care. On its website, the National Association for Family Child Care advises parents to ask these questions, among others:

  • How many children are enrolled in the program?
  • What are your qualifications?
  • What is a typical day like?
  • Do you have CPR and first aid training?
  • Is there a contract and what is included?

The association also recommends that parents visit potential day cares and observe how a provider interacts with children and what play activities are available.

How much it costs

Family child care can be significantly cheaper than hiring a nanny in many parts of the nation, but rates can vary widely depending on the state and the age of the child.

The “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care 2013 Report,” issued by advocacy group Child Care Aware of America, found the following represent the low and high annual average costs across the country:

  • Infant — Rates range from $3,930 a year in Mississippi to $11,046 a year in New York.
  • Four-year-old — Rates range from $3,704 in Mississippi to $10,259 in New York.
  • School-age child — Rates range from $1,791 in South Carolina to $10,137 in New York.

Those rates represent one child. Some child care providers may cut you a break if you have multiple children, but it doesn’t sound like you get much of one, according to the numbers from Child Care Aware of America. The group found the average annual cost for two children (an infant and a 4-year old) was, on the low end, $7,634 in Mississippi and $21,305 in New York on the high end.

Day care centers: More staff, more structure

Finally, we come to the last option: child care centers. These are day cares run in facilities that aren’t homes. You can find them with adorable names like “Wee Folk Child Care” that seem to be all about playtime, or marketed as “learning centers” to appeal to those hoping to give Junior a head start on school.

Like family day cares, centers are licensed and regulated by the government. They may have slightly larger ratios than what you would find in a home setting, but they also have larger staffs who can provide consistent care day in and day out. If your family day care provider becomes sick or has an emergency, you might be scrambling to find someone as a replacement. However, at a center, other workers simply step in to fill any staffing gaps.

While every center will have its own flavor, many of these facilities operate on a more structured schedule than what may be provided by a family day care or nanny. Rather than free time all day, there may be story times, outdoor recess, circle time with songs, or age-appropriate crafts. Depending on your child, this structure may or may not be a good thing.

When selecting a day care center, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests asking these and other questions:

  • What are the center hours? What happens when a parent is late?
  • How is discipline handled?
  • What are the qualifications and training of staff?
  • What is the visiting policy?
  • If applicable, how are children transported?
  • How is the day structured?
  • Are children supervised at all times? Even when sleeping?

How much it costs

In its 2013 report, Child Care Aware of America found this range of average annual prices for child care centers:

  • Infant — Rates range from $4,863 in Mississippi to $16,430 in Massachusetts.
  • Four-year-old — Rates range from $4,312 in Mississippi to $12,355 in New York.
  • School-age child — Rates range from $1,070 in Louisiana to $11,690 in New York.

For a family with an infant and 4-year-old, the average annual cost ranges from $9,175 in Mississippi to $28,606 in Massachusetts.

And the winner is …

You really didn’t think I was going to pick a winner, did you?

Like almost every other parenting decision you have to make, there is no easy answer.

Financially, family day care seems like a slam-dunk as the cheapest option. But then there is research, such as “The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development” from 2006, that says children in centers have a slight advantage when it comes to cognitive and verbal development. Or maybe, just maybe, paying extra for a nanny is worth it if it means you don’t lose your sanity dragging your screaming toddler out of bed in the predawn hours each day.

Some family day cares and centers will provide food, and that may mean lower grocery costs for you. On the other hand, having the kids at home with a nanny might mean you’re more likely to pull out the slow cooker in the morning and less likely to hit the drive-through after picking them up.

See? It’s not so easy or so clear-cut. However, this hopefully gives you a starting point to make the decision that is right for you and for your kids.

While you’re here, you may also want to read our article on 10 ways to reduce ridiculously high child care costs.

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