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Who should take care of our children? Making decisions about childcare

Published on Psychology Today

Only a few short months or even weeks after having a baby, most parents are faced with the very difficult decision of whether to stay home or go back to work. In fact, the tough and often expensive decision about child care haunts many of us over and over again as the summer approaches and preschools close, and then as the fall approaches again and they reopen. Do you stay home? Should you hire a nanny? Should you send your child to daycare? How do you decide?

For many parents, this decision is first and foremost financial. The cost of childcare in the United States is on average around $10,000 per year, but that depends on where you live, and it can range from $8,000 all the way up to $18-20,000. And that’s just for one child. If the annual income of a parent is less than that, it could be much more cost-efficient for that parent to stay home full time than to go back to work (especially if you don’t particularly like your job). If you’re a single parent, quitting might not be an option at all, and you have to work out the financials by getting help from family members or staying home part time.

For us, neither I nor my husband want to quit our jobs, and frankly neither of us can afford to, so working out some kind of daycare was not so much a choice as a requirement. So a few months after having my first son, we were faced with the difficult decision of whether we were going to send our son to daycare or hire a nanny, and we found that there were upsides and downsides to both.

If you decide to hire a nanny, you are paying for one on-one-care, which means that your child’s individual needs will be attended to all day long. Hiring a nanny will likely also give you more scheduling flexibility, as there aren’t necessarily a set number of hours where their services are available during a typical workday. But, nannies can be quite expensive—oftentimes more expensive than daycare. Indeed, the average cost for a nanny is $700 per week, whereas the average daycares cost more like $1000 a month (Kimball, 2016). Further, there is no official licensing or certification process for nannies, so you can’t exactly be sure about what you’re going to get. If you’re really lucky and you have a friend who lives close by who also has children, you might be able to work out a nanny-share, where one person watches both of your children and you can split the cost. But most of us aren’t that lucky, so a cheaper way to go might be a local daycare center.

With a daycare, your children won’t get one-on-one attention, but daycares are cheaper than nannies, and accredited daycares have to go through a lengthy certification process, so you have some idea of what you’re getting. The process itself varies by state, but most states have very specific criteria that a daycare center has to meet to become certified, and the center often needs to be inspected by a knowledgeable representative who ensures that it meets a certain set of standards. Daycares are limited in the number of hours of service they might offer, but you don’t have to worry about one person getting sick and then canceling your care for the day. Daycares might also offer a more fun option if you want your child to interact with other kids his or her own age. But, more kids also means more germs, and your child might get sick more often than if they were with a nanny. On top of that, it could be difficult to find a place that takes infants under 18 months of age, and a lot of the good daycares have long waiting lists.

Besides these practical pros and cons, there are other criteria you might have for choosing the right child care. Maybe you are worried that your children are behind other kids in language or some other domain, and you want to give them a bit of a head start academically before they head to pre-K. In that case, daycare might be the right option. But, not all daycares are created equal: Research suggests that attending “high quality” daycares and preschools might help bolster children’s academic performance later in kindergarten, but this might not be the case for other, lower quality daycare centers. “High quality” sounds a little vague, but it usually means that there is a small teacher to child ratio at the center (and hence your child will get more one-on-one attention), the teachers have some kind of specialized training in early child care, and there is a professionally developed curriculum that the center follows. Research suggests that children who attend these high quality childcare centers are happier than other kids, they perform better on language and other academic tests, and have better social skills (Vandell, 2004). These benefits are especially strong for children growing up in low-income households. That doesn’t mean there are no educational benefits associated with choosing a nanny or staying at home yourself: Again, the quality of daycares is often judged by how much one-on-one attention children are getting, and there are studies showing that children who have parents that stay at home perform better in school as teenagers, so staying at home with you or a nanny has its benefits as well (e.g., Bettinger, Hægeland, & Rege, 2014).

Another possibility is that you have an incredibly shy child, and are perhaps reluctant to push him into daycare too soon. In this case, a nanny might be a good choice. Or maybe you have a child who’s a little slow to warm up, who you think might get a lot out of being around other kids on a daily basis. In this case, daycare might have some positive outcomes for children who are prone to shyness. There is evidence that having positive interactions with peers at daycare can make any child more social over time, but these effects are dependent on the individual experiences of each child, so whether or not daycare can actually help children with socialization depends on both the child and the daycare (Almas, Degnan, Fox, Phillips, Henderson, Moas, & Hane, 2011).

There is no easy answer to the question of who should care for your children. And whether you choose daycare or a nanny, or whether you piece together some combination, it’s likely to be expensive and temporary, changing every year as your child grows. But the good news is that many child care options might carry benefits for your children. Attending a high quality childcare program, even full time, is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes for kids. If you stay home or choose a nanny, your child will get one on one care for most of the day, which is one of the most important factors in determining how good a daycare or preschool is in the first place. Regardless of what you choose, what best predicts his or her social and cognitive functioning is the quality of your relationship with your child, regardless of what kind of child care you choose (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2001). So if you and your child have a trusting relationship, you can rest easy knowing that having to get help doesn’t come at an emotional or academic cost—even if it does come with a financial one.

Photo by Kids Work Chicago Daycare/Flickr


Almas, A. N., Degnan, K. A., Fox, N. A., Phillips, D. A., Henderson, H. A., Moas, O. L., & Hane, A. A. (2011). The relations between infant negative reactivity, non‐maternal childcare, and children's interactions with familiar and unfamiliar peers. Social Development, 20, 718-740.

Bettinger, E., Hægeland, T., & Rege, M. (2014). Home with mom: the effects of stay-at-home parents on children’s long-run educational outcomes. Journal of Labor Economics, 32, 443-467.

Kimball, V. (2016). A Nanny Versus Daycare: Is There a Right Choice? Pediatric Annals, 45, e36-e38.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2001). Nonmaternal care and family factors in early development: An overview of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 22, 457-492.

Vandell, D. (2004). Early child care: The known and the unknown. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50, 387-414.

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