Day Care vs. Nanny: Which One’s Right for You?

You’re not alone. Most moms have these two choices, one tough decision.
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By Lambeth Hochwald, Contributing Writer
Updated April 10, 2018
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Whether you’re aiming for part-time or full-time care, there comes a time in every working mom’s life when she asks herself an important question: What are the best childcare choices for my child?

You’re not alone in agonizing over this decision. Sixty-two percent of parents say it’s really hard to find affordable, quality childcare—and this is true for all parents, regardless of how many zeros are on your paycheck—according to the Pew Research Center.

How do you even begin to decide? If you don’t have a grandparent who lives nearby and can lend a hand, the two most common choices are nanny and day care. But when it comes down to it, deciding whether to go with day care or a nanny really depends on your family and two key factors that will come into play: time and money.

Case in point: New mom Kelsey Down ended up using both a nanny and day care in the first few months of her daughter’s life. “When I went back to work after my maternity leave, we were still on months-long waiting lists for several local day cares, so we had to resort to a part-time nanny while I worked from home two days a week,” says Down, whose daughter is now 7 months old. “Then I recently changed jobs, and after a few months with this nanny, we miraculously found a new day care with an open spot. It was cheaper for a full five days than hiring a nanny for only three days.”

Ultimately, while many may think the decision to choose a nanny or day care hinges on what’s best for the child, what’s truly most important is what’s best for both baby and parents, especially mom.

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“Research shows that the wellness of parents is hugely influential on a child’s IQ, well-being and ability to form relationships,” says Sarah Griesemer, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas. “While a day care setup may provide consistency and social interaction, a nanny provides something key to maternal mental health that day care can’t—help around the house. A skilled nanny can do housework, run errands, make meals and help a mother to feel cared for.”

But a family’s budget is often the deciding factor. After all, parents who are stressed out about money aren’t going to rest easy even if there’s a nanny to help with diapers and dishes.

Whether you choose a nanny or day care, each scenario has pros and cons. Only you can decide what’s best for your family. Here’s how to get started.

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Nanny vs. Day Care: Decisions, Decisions

If you’re just beginning to map out a childcare strategy, you’re not alone in making these tough childcare choices. But consider this: Almost one-quarter of children under 5 are in some form of organized child care, including day care, according to the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization.

But before you decide on enrolling your baby in day care or hiring a nanny, consider the following factors:

What’s your timeline? When will you go back to work? This can be a major factor in deciding on childcare choices for baby. Finding a nanny takes time, and day care centers often have wait lists in place—some months long.

What’s your schedule? Are you returning to work full time? Part time? Job sharing? Will you have supplemental help, say from a grandparent or other resource? Plotting out when” part is critical when deciding on childcare choices for your infant or toddler.

What’s your budget? An experienced, well-regarded nanny can run a pretty penny—day care costs in some cities can amount to a second mortgage. Ultimately, your childcare budget could make this decision for you.

The bottom line is both nannies and day care can be costly, and US families spend more on childcare than they do on rent, according to the Economy Policy Institute, a worker advocacy group.

And while some companies have made parental leave strides, the reality is that working women take 10.3 weeks on average before heading back to work. “Most companies require you to get back to work quickly, which means you’ll need to secure childcare for a baby who is 3 to 6 months old,” Griesemer says.

Read on as we sketch out the ins and outs of day care and hiring a nanny to help you determine what’s right for you.

Day Care 101

A day care facility is specially designed to care for children, usually from infants through preschool age. This childcare option comes in many forms. Here are a few to consider:

Day Care Center. This is usually a childcare service in a state-inspected stand-alone facility, run by licensed caregivers. These facilities will often offer transitional or preschool level educational services, active play and other structured experiences for babies and toddlers. The child-to-caregiver ratio in such a facility may be higher, but children will frequently be divided into age-specific groupings with age-appropriate activities.

In-Home Day Care. This smaller-scale childcare service is usually offered in the caregiver’s home. While less structured than a traditional day care facility, this type of day care is still strictly regulated by state rules and mandates. Here, your child may experience a lower caregiver-to-child ratio and more customized small-group or individual care. But checking references and licensing status for in-home caregivers is critical.

Corporate Childcare. It feels like a fantasy, but some family-friendly major corporations are offering (sometimes subsidized) day care facilities on their campuses, which mean less stress for working moms and dads. The convenience factor here can’t be beat. Lunch with baby? What a treat.

Religious Schools or Organizations. If your family is religious—or even if you’re not—childcare services from a religious school or organization can offer convenience, peace of mind and even a heavy discount.

Day Care Pros and Cons

Every childcare option has its pros and cons, and day care is no exception. Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? That depends on your situation. This checklist should help you decide.

Day care pros

Vetted, licensed caregivers. These facilities are mandated to meet state and federal licensing regulations. Check to ensure your day care’s status is up to date and that there are no complaints against the facility.

Structured space and hours. Day care centers will offer structured dates and hours meant to accommodate working parents, which might included an extended day that includes early-morning and late-evening hours.

It may offer online check-ins or monitoring. Some facilities may let you “visit” your child remotely during the day via an online monitoring system or video chat.

It benefits social interaction and development. Playtime with pals? Baby is developing critical skills by interacting with others, both adults and children.

Focuses on early childhood education. Many day cares double as pre-preschool, offering an early-childhood curriculum that will introduce baby to his ABCs and 123s.

Day care cons

High turnover? As baby develops, a safe, familiar staff is critical. Check to see how stable the staff is at your facility.

Structured hours. Yes, this can be a pro too. But you’re out of luck when you’re running late at work or need to run kid-free errands on a Sunday afternoon.

It can be expensive. Put baby in day care for the year and prepare to face high costs—around $11,666 per year or as much as the average cost of a year’s tuition at a four-year public college, according to the Center for American Progress.

Germs! While baby may develop significant resistance via her exposure over the long term, expect sick days over the short term—and lots of them. Keep in mind that you’ll have to keep baby at home with you—and potentially miss work—if she is sick.

Even with some drawbacks, day care can be a better option than a nanny because of the social interaction it gives your child. “The new buzz is social emotional learning—does the day care center have a way of teaching babies how to interact and understand social relationships,” Griesemer says. “We’re finding that play opportunities are very important. Structure matters too. Kids who are ages 3, 4 and 5 definitely benefit from having been dropped off at day care.”

Whatever you do, definitely visit the day care center weeks ahead of baby’s first day. “A lot of parents forget to introduce their baby to day care,” says Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist in Seattle. “They’re thinking, I have to get back to work on X date, so that’s when day care starts. But you want to adjust baby weeks before you start the process. You being there and interacting with the staff will help baby feel comfortable and safe.”

Why this mom loves day care:

“I gave birth to a baby boy in February 2017. I knew I had to put him in day care three days a week once my 12 weeks of maternity leave was up. My husband and I both work full time, and although we have family members who help, we needed help. I’m happy to report that the caretakers are so loving and send him home with a report card detailing his day—what books were read to him, how much he ate and when, how many diaper changes, his behavior/mood, nap times. At first I hated the fact that he had to be there, but we’ve all adjusted. I’m happy he’s there!” —Allie Maltese

Nanny 101

A nanny is an experienced childcare provider who will come to your home and take care of baby on an agreed-upon schedule.

Nanny pros

Vetted caregiver. These days, sites like help you find an experienced caregiver with references.

Structured space. Most nannies will come to your home to care for your child, which means a familiar, stable and safe environment.

Your nanny, your schedule. Full time? Part time? Evenings and weekends? Since your nanny works directly for you, you can structure the hours to fit your needs.

Additional duties. You decide the rate you pay your nanny, within the range and expectations your area allows, of course. This means you also decide what the nanny’s duties entail. Child care alone? Light household tasks, like meals and dishes? Heavier lifting like laundry?

Budget saver? A nanny can actually be easier on your budget if you have two kids or more or decide to do a nanny share with other parents.

Custom care and attention. Your nanny’s sole focus is your child, which can offer parental peace of mind. Depending on your nanny’s background, this might mean one-on-one play and learning time when it comes to language and early-childhood development.

“Parents should get clear on their values and make sure it matches the other family to avoid conflicts over expectations,” Griesemer says. “This includes talking about how much you want your child to play independently, how much outdoor time you want, are TVs allowed and a discipline policy.”

Nanny cons

Lack of oversight. You’ve installed the nanny-cams, but when it’s just nanny and baby, there’s no real way to know exactly what your little one’s day looks like.

Budget buster? Unless your nanny is taking care of multiple kids or part of a nanny share, nannies tend to be the more expensive option—costing $500 to $700 per week for full-time care, according to the International Nanny Association.

Paperwork headaches. As an employer, you will need to pay your nanny’s Social Security taxes and file a W-2 for her.

If you decide a nanny is the right childcare choice for you, you’ll need to begin the process of finding and vetting one. Where do you start? Ask the moms or parenting groups in your neighborhood for recommendations (Facebook groups are great for this), and check out agencies and services like or to help find the ideal candidate, complete with background check. “By hiring through an agency, the benefit is that they do the vetting for you,” Griesemer says. “They’ve done the interviewing and background check. It also means that if your nanny is sick, they may be able to fill in with another nanny on staff.”

Why this mom loves her nanny:

“I opted for a nanny for my 6-month-old son because I met a specific nanny with whom I connected and who came with very strong referrals. Upon meeting her, I decided one-on-one care would be an asset, and part of why I’d recommend this route is that she does his laundry and prepares food that I can feed him on the weekends!” —Andrea Wasserman

Top 5 day care vs. nanny questions to ask

1: What’s the cost, and what do I get? For example, will the nanny clean and cook in addition to watching your child? Does the day care provide meals? If so, are they prepared with fresh ingredients or processed, prepackaged ones?

2: Will this be convenient? Is the day care facility close to my house or my work? Or would the nanny be available to come to my house during the hours I’ll need her?

3: What’s my gut feeling? Do I like the nanny or the people who run the day care? Can I trust them?

4: Is there shared trust? Are they willing to respect my wishes? For example, if I choose to use cloth diapers or have bottled breast milk, will they accommodate this?

5: What’s their availability and turnover rate? How long have the caregivers been at the center I’m interested in? How long has this nanny been working in childcare? What are the caregiver’s long-term plans? Remember: It’s best if kids can stay with the same caregiver for at least a year.

In the end, only you can decide the best option for your family. “The biggest thing I talk to parents about is to search for a place you can feel good about,” Donhauser says. “That’s the most important thing for the whole family.”

Published July 2017

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