Check out this comprehensive guide to childcare options. Compare the pros and cons of family child care, child care centers, nannies, and more.Finding the right child care option for your little one when you return to work can be challenging. It’s unsettling to leave your child with a near-stranger, so you’re probably investing a lot of time and effort to nail down the right environment with a caregiver you can trust.

When parents look for their ideal child care environment, they look for a place where their child will be safe and happy. You want to leave your child in the hands of someone who will help to stimulate their development and growth so they can reach their full potential. The trick is finding a solution that’s both best for your child, and for your lifestyle and wallet.

Luckily there are a few different childcare options to choose from. Let’s take a deep dive and compare what’s out there so you can pick the right child care option for your family:

Skip to
Family child care homes
Forest schools
Child care centers
Nannies
Nanny share
Au pairs
Babysitters
Informal care from family member or neighbor

Family child care homes

In family child care homes, a provider, and sometimes their assistants, care for a small group of children in their home. Family child cares are smaller and more intimate than child care centers. Each state has its own licensing procedure and requirements for family child cares.

Cooking together in Angel Academy family child care
Baking at Wonderschool’s Angel Academy family child care in Berkeley, CA

Pros

  • Regulated: You’ll want to make sure the family child care you find has registered for a license with the state. If so, this means they are held to certain safety and health requirements (that differ by state). Here at Wonderschool, we also oversee the quality of the family child cares in our network so you can be sure each Director has been vetted thoroughly. Otherwise, you’ll want to do the vetting yourself.
  • More than one caregiver at once: Like in child care centers, Wonderschool Directors oftentimes hire an assistant or co-teacher. Some non-Wonderschool family child care homes also employ an assistant, although it’s not required on a typical small family child care license. Having an assistant means you reap the benefits of having more than one set of eyes supervising activities.
  • Passionate caregivers: Family child care homes are small businesses run by passionate and skilled caregivers. In family child cares in the Wonderschool community, directors don’t have to worry about the business side and can simply focus on what they love. This means they can spend their time focusing on delivering the best curriculum, activities, education, and care possible. Do note that family child cares that are not associated with Wonderschool would not have this advantage.
  • Consistent quality for the cost: Family child care homes have lower overhead costs than centers but also serve fewer children at a time. This means they won’t necessarily be less expensive than centers but are of more consistent quality.

chart showing average cost of childcare in US in 2015

Comparing the average costs of different childcare options | Source

  • Mixed age groups: Some family child cares are mixed age groups. This offers developmental benefits for children.
  • Small group sizes and low teacher-student ratio: The licensed capacity of a family child care home is determined by each state’s regulations. But they are usually small groups of less than 15 children along with one or two instructors. Your child will have more personal attention from the instructor than in a larger child care center setting, but not as much as in a one-on-one arrangement like with a nanny or au pair.
  • Trust: With family child cares, once you find the right fit, your child can continue to attend preschool there for years at a time. You’ll find consistent care with someone you trust, whereas in centers, you may not even know the person watching your child.
  • Easy to find: The National Association for Regulatory Administration and the National Child Care Information Center reported there were 213,966 licensed family child care homes in the United States in 2006. In 2014, there were more than 30,000 just in the state of California. You won’t have trouble finding a family child care as they are quite common. You will have options of different family child cares to choose from.
  • A great transition option: Family child care homes are a great way to transition your child from home care to group care without causing distress.
  • Social interaction: A family child care home offers the opportunity for social interaction with other children. Social interaction is important in helping a child develop social skills like cooperation and communication, as well as cognitive and motor skills.

Cons

  • No sick care: Similar to child care centers, if your child is sick, you’ll have to stay home with them to care for them. If the provider is sick, there may not be back up providers available as there would be in a child care center.
  • Vetting: You’ll have to spend the time finding and vetting the right family child care director. Even though there are licensing regulations, the quality of care can vary from program to program. At Wonderschool, we specifically recruit providers and teachers with the skills and experience in early childhood education to create the best and highest quality program for your child.

Forest Schools

Forest schools are play based, child-led programs that take place outside in rich, wooded environments. They are similar to family child care homes in that the group size is small and the instructor-to-child ratio is low. However, forest schools are held mostly outside and are not as structured as other early education programs. Some Wonderschools are also Forest Schools.

Planting at Little Nest Learning Space family child care
Planting at Wonderschool’s Little Nest Learning Space family child care

Pros

  • Incredible benefits for children: Forest schools have been shown to help children develop in a holistic way, including through social and emotional learning. Children who attend forest school become more resilient, more relaxed and motivated to learn, and have more developed coordination and fine motor skills.
  • Environmental education: Your child will develop a bond with nature and grow a deeper understanding of the environment around them.
  • School readiness: Forest school is very different from traditional preschool and you may worry about a lack of focus on traditional academic skills. However, children who attend forest school are just as, if not more, prepared for kindergarten than their counterparts. Forest schools contribute to the development of motor skills, social and emotional skills such as cooperation and empathy, and curiosity that contribute to school readiness.

Cons

  • Hard to find and vet: Forest schools are fairly new to the States, although they have been around for decades in Europe. But with growing demand, they are popping up in cities and towns across America. It can be hard to find the right one, but we’ve put together a list of forest schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to get you started.
  • Safety: You may worry about your child’s safety at forest school, where they may confront risks like learning how to behave around a fire circle, climbing trees, and using tools. But teaching young children to cope with risk helps them make better decisions throughout their lifetime. It’s true that if you don’t have quality instructors, your child’s safety in these conditions is a valid concern. You will want to make sure you trust the instructors and feel comfortable with the program they run. Usually, forest schools will allow the parent to attend a day of school and see what it’s like.
  • Commute: You may have a long commute to pick up and drop off your child depending on the location of the program, and locations may vary from day to day or week to week.

Child care centers

A child care center is often thought of as the traditional form of early childhood education. The center is usually located in a specialized facility and offers part or full day schedules of activities and education for infants as young as 6 weeks old. Centers are licensed and must meet government safety and staff regulations.

Childcare options comparison table

Pros

  • Social interaction: A child care center offers the opportunity for social interaction with other children. Social interaction is important in helping a child develop social skills like cooperation and communication, as well as cognitive and motor skills.
  • Regulated: Centers are regulated by the government. They are held to certain health and safety standards that are regularly monitored. You’ll find that sometimes the quality of the center is monitored in addition, but other times it isn’t. This means you’ll still need to do some research to make sure the center is up to your standards.
  • More than one caregiver at once: There is typically more than one caregiver present, offering an extra pair of eyes versus what you might have in a nanny share for example.
  • Reliability: Child care centers have clear opening and closing times and dates, so you know when they will be open or closed. You don’t have to worry about the caregiver getting sick and not being able to watch your child last minute like you might with a nanny, au pair, or family child care.

Cons

  • High staff turnover: Child care centers can be demanding workplace environments, and it’s not uncommon to see high turnover rates. If you’re looking for an environment that fosters a deep, long-term bond between your child and his or her caregiver, a center won’t necessarily be the place to find it.
  • High staff-to-child ratio: You’ll see a variation in staff-to-child ratios at different centers, but it’s likely that your child won’t get one-on-one attention. If that’s something that’s important to you, a center is not the best choice.
  • Risk of frequent illness: Children who attend child care centers do get sick more often, especially when they are first entering group care. Furthermore, if your child is sick, you’ll need to keep him or her home that day and this might affect your work.
  • Commute: You may be looking at a long commute if the center isn’t near your home.

Nannies

A nanny is a person who either lives in your home or comes to your home during the day to care for your child and perhaps do some light housekeeping. This child care option is typically more expensive than child care centers or family child care homes.

In home preschool Carousel Wonderschool
At Carousel Wonderschool

Pros

  • No commute: A nanny usually comes to your house so you don’t have to worry about bringing your child somewhere and picking them up later. Less time in the car means more time with your kids.
  • Comfort of own environment: Providing child care in your own home means you don’t have to stress about the environment your child will be in all day. You (and they) know exactly what to expect.
  • One-on-one care: This can be both a good and bad thing. Your child will get that personal attention you want for them however, you’ll have to make an extra effort to socialize them as this provides important benefits too.
  • Can provide for a sick child: You don’t have to worry about child care when your child is sick as you might in a center or family child care setting because the nanny will be there to care for them.
  • Trust: You can build trust and rapport with your nanny over time. This differs from a center, where you might not know the staff and they make new hires all the time so your child won’t be with the same caregivers long-term.
  • Flexibility: Overall, a nanny offers lots of flexibility. You can arrange more flexible hours with your nanny than what you might find in a center.

Cons

  • Variation in quality: There is no one standard for nannying so you’ll find lots of variation in education and skills as well as languages spoken while looking for the right person for the job. Chances are, your nanny won’t have a background in early childhood education.
  • Vetting needed: Speaking of which, you’ll need to spend time vetting the right person, whether this means checking references or a background check or in-depth interviewing and trial shifts with your child.
  • Low socialization: If it’s just a nanny and your child, your child won’t benefit from socialization with other children as they might in a family child care or child care center.
  • Cost: A nanny can be even more expensive than center care, although the cost varies widely.
  • Dependency: You are dependent on the nanny for care and would need to find last minute backup, or skip work, in case the nanny is sick or suddenly unavailable.

Nanny share

In a nanny share, you and other families share the cost of a nanny who watches all the families’ kids at one house. It’s basically the same as the nanny option but potentially more affordable and without the one-on-one care you get with a nanny or au pair.

Pros

  • Socialization: With a nanny share, you’ll get the socialization that you wouldn’t get with just a nanny.
  • Cost: Nanny shared might come in at a lower cost compared to having a nanny for just your family.

Cons

  • Ratio of caregiver to children: You lose the one-on-one care that you would get with the nanny option.
  • Commute: You also lose the flexibility and convenience if the care is no longer in your own house.
  • More vetting: With a nanny share, you have to vet not only the nanny, but the other families and their homes as well. You’ll have to deal with the same concerns about the quality of the caregiver with a nanny share as you would in trying to find the right nanny.
  • Look for families: You may have to find and vet other families to share with, unless you already know them.

Au Pairs

Au pairs are similar to nannies, but are between the ages of 18 and 26 and usually come from another country to learn or practice a new language. They almost always live in your home, and they can care for your children for up to 45 hours a week. They usually stay only one year but can stay for up to two. Unlike nannies, au pairs don’t do housekeeping.

Family child care options: child playing with pipe cleaner at Kids Collage Preschool
Kids Collage Preschool in North Oakland

Pros

  • No commute: Like with a nanny, you don’t have to worry about driving your child to and from care since the au pair lives in your home.
  • Comfort of own environment: Again, similar to a nanny, your child will be in the comfort of their home. You don’t have to stress about the safety of the environment since you’ll have complete control over it.
  • One-on-one care: Your child will get personal attention with one-on-one care.Can provide for a sick child: Again, like with a nanny, you won’t have to worry about missing work yourself to care for your child if they’re sick.
  • Can provide for a sick child: Again, like with a nanny, you won’t have to worry about missing work yourself to care for your child if they’re sick.
  • Second language exposure: Hiring a foreign national as an au pair means you can expose your child to a second language at a very young age. Our capacity to learn languages diminishes gradually over the course of our lifetimes, so this is a good time to introduce a second language.
  • Trust: Assuming you find a great fit, you’ll have someone you trust watching your child and you’ll create an international bond.
  • Can go through agency: If you find a good agency, you won’t have to do all the vetting yourself. However, some parents still struggle to find quality child care even after working with au pair agencies.

Cons

  • High turnover: Even though au pairs can stay for up to two years, many only choose to stay one year in their positions. There is high turnover so your child won’t have the consistency of the same caregiver year after year.
  • Provide essentials: You will have to provide the essentials like a living space, food, and transportation for your au pair. You may also feel obligated to provide certain amenities like their own vehicle or cell phone. You’ll have to have the extra income to support your au pair financially in these ways.
  • Inability to properly vet: You’ll only get to meet your potential au pair on Skype before committing. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing someone you haven’t met in person to live with you in your home, this might not be the best option.
  • Lack of training and skills: Au pairs likely will not have the same early childhood education training, experience, and skills as family child care providers or child care center staff do. The presence and quality of early childhood education is related to success in school later on.

Babysitters

Babysitters are short-term, informal caregivers who come by your home to watch your child or children for a few hours, perhaps on the weekend. They are most likely less expensive than the other options, but they also don’t usually work full-time and don’t have any early childhood education training or skills. Babysitters can fill a temporary or short-term need but aren’t a long-term child care solution.

Drawing at Little Scholars Wonderschool preschool
Drawing at Little Scholars Preschool

Informal care from family member or neighbor

Some families choose to have their child cared for by other family members or neighbors in an informal way. They have nearby grandparents, cousins, or other extended family members nearby watch their children, usually for a low fee or no fee at all.

Pros

  • Convenience: You may find informal child care from a family member extremely convenient, especially if they come to your home.
  • Trust: You probably know your family member well and feel you can trust them. There’s no long vetting process as there would be for any of the other child care options.
  • Cheap or free: This option can be extremely cost-efficient depending on the agreement you work out with the caregiver.

Cons

  • Affect your relationship: Getting your family members to help you out may make you feel indebted to them or guilty. Meanwhile, they may feel obligated to help. It’s a lot of responsibility to ask someone to watch your children full time. It can create tension within the family, especially if you don’t already have a good relationship with them.
  • Lack of reliability: Informal arrangements may not be as reliable as other options. As much as your family may want to help, they aren’t as committed to the role as someone you would be paying or someone who is trained. They’re doing this out of the kindness of their heart to help you out, so you might find they may leave early, take days off, etc.
  • Lack of quality: Your family member or neighbor likely does not have any formal early childhood education training or background. They are not a childcare or education professional. Also, some people who have their parents (the child’s grandparents) care for their children full-time find grandparents are not always physically up to the task of keeping up with their little one.
  • Lack of regulations: An informal arrangement with a family member means you won’t be sending your child into a regulated child care environment. Any standards for health and safety are up to negotiations between you and your family member.

Childcare options: train set at preschool

Overall, no matter what kind of care you seek out for your child, you’ll have to spend some time vetting the service or person to be sure it meets your standards. Every childcare option is going to have some pros and cons, so it’s important to take a step back and consider what you value the most in childcare. Do you need a shorter commute? Do you want to make sure your child is socializing with other children?

It’s a good idea to develop a mental list of priorities as you go into the decision-making process. Then assess each option according to what you and your family need.

Here at Wonderschool, we partner with talented teachers to create high-quality family child cares and forest schools in local communities. Browse the Wonderschool preschools and child cares in your community.