Child Care Basics

For an infant or young toddler, your options for child care providers include family or friends, nannies, au pairs, family child cares, and child care centers. Let’s look at each:

Family, Friend or Neighbor Care

Many children are cared for by grandparents, aunts/uncles, or family friends – this is actually the most common form of child care. This care might be provided in the child’s home or the home of the caregiver.

The advantages are that the caregiver is someone that the parents have a long history with who will also likely continue to be a part of the child’s life for many years. So it can be part of a loving, connected relationship built on trust. There may be shared language, culture, and traditions. This type of care tends to be the most flexible schedule option so can work especially well for people with non-traditional work schedules or on-call responsibilities. Plus, family care is often offered free of charge or in exchange for room and board or other arrangements.

Some possible disadvantages: the caregiver can sometimes feel unappreciated or feel like they’re being taken advantage of, and the parents and caregivers may have conflict over the “right way” to care for the child which strains the relationship. These can be navigated but it’s important to be sensitive to the need for open, honest dialogue. Also, while some family members provide excellent, stimulating learning environments for the children, that is not always the case, since family members are less likely to have training in child development and child safety. (Note: Zero to Three has great child development resources to share with family caregivers, and here’s a list of child safety topics that all caregivers should be aware of.)

Tips for choosing this type of care: and making it work for your family:


A nanny is a professional child care provider, who comes to the child’s home to provide care (some nannies are live-in care providers). The parents are the employer and they set the terms of a contract: what the schedule will be, what services will be provided (e.g. will the nanny provide any housekeeping or meal prep in addition to child care) and hire a nanny that agrees to that contract. The advantages are that you can customize the agreement to your own needs, the nanny has chosen child care as their profession and typically has a passion for caring for children, and the same nanny may remain with your family for years, providing continuity of care. The disadvantage is that the hiring process can be quite lengthy (and you have to understand taxes and insurance – though working with a nanny agency can ease some of the burden). And if the nanny is sick or quits suddenly, you may have to scramble for a new plan.

Some families nanny share – this plays out a lot of different ways, for example, the nanny is with family A on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and with family B on Thursday and Friday – this is good for families with part-time work. Or the nanny watches both children every day in family A’s home – this is good for parents who want a playmate for their child.

Learn more about how to hire a nanny. And questions to ask a nanny in an interview. Or check out the Guide to Selecting a Nanny.

Au Pair

Au pair refers to someone from a foreign country, typically between the ages of 18 and 26. Like an exchange student, they live in a host family’s home and attend school part-time (6 credits) while also providing child care as “part of the family.” They will stay with a family for 12 months. The family provides room, board, and a small salary. (Maybe $350 a week vs. $750 a week for a nanny in the same market.) The schedule can be more flexible, working around the parent’s work schedule and the au pair’s classes, but with a maximum of 45 hours of child care provided each week. Advantages: exposing your family to a foreign culture and possibly another language, low cost. Disadvantages: the au pair may or may not be as interested in child care as a nanny. One year commitment.

Au pairs are more for older children than for babies. They can not be placed with a family whose baby is less than three months old, and can only be placed with an under 2 year old if they’ve had a special 200 hours of training.

Learn more about nannies and au pairs: and

Family Child Care

Providers care for children in a home / residential setting. Typically there are one or two caregivers and a small number of children, with a range of ages. Some are licensed and follow safety and health requirements, some are not.

Advantages: many families like the home-like environment, in a smaller setting your child receives more individualized care. If you have two children of different ages, they can be together at child care rather than separated into age groups as they would be in a larger child care setting. Fewer people in the child care setting means less potential for exposure to illnesses. There’s typically a consistent caregiver, with less turnover. Often lower cost than nannies or child care centers.

Disadvantages – if you’re reliant upon one person for child care, then if they get sick or go on vacation, you may not have child care – be sure you know what their plans are for these contingencies. Because there’s only one (or two) caregivers, if they aren’t good, it’s not a good situation. (For example, I once toured an in-home day care where the provider said they rarely watched TV, but I got the sense from the placement of the TV that it was used frequently to keep the kids’ attention occupied. This was not in alignment with my goals for my child’s care.) It’s especially important that the parent and caregiver have a respectful relationship and feel they can trust each other.

Some family child cares have very flexible schedules, some have inflexible schedules. It depends upon the caregiver.

Child Care Aware has an excellent, comprehensive Family Child Care Checklist to help you evaluate a provider.

Child Care Centers

Child care centers are larger facilities, typically with a director and many care providers. Children are typically divided by age group – for example, the infants room, the toddler room, the preschool age, etc. Some centers are non-profits run by churches, schools, or non-profit agencies. Others are for profit and may be owned by an individual or a chain.

Advantages: If a caregiver is ill or has a vacation, typically their absence can be easily covered by someone else, so your child care needs are consistently met. Some parents prefer the single-age groupings where all the toys and activities are specialized to that age group. Some (more expensive) centers may offer lots of bonus activities such as gymnastics classes or music classes. They have to follow the most safety regulations and have more regular inspections.

Disadvantages: There may be a higher level of turnover of staff members and less chance for your child to develop a relationship with a consistent caregiver. Less individualized care. More exposure to illness may mean your child is sick more in their early years (but may be sick less as they get older, since their immune system has had lots of training.)

Check out Child Care Aware’s Child Care Center Checklist for questions to help you evaluate the quality of a center.

For Washington State Families, Child Care Aware offers a very helpful brochure on Choosing a Child Care on Child Care Centers and Family Child Care. It includes info on steps to finding quality child care, staff to child ratios and group size (in WA, for babies under one year, there’s a maximum of four babies per adult caregiver and a maximum group size of 8 children), and financial options.

Learn more

Child Care Aware also offers a helpful overview of types of child care that’s worth checking out.