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Too Young for Childcare?

Family Needs

Beyond what’s best for their baby, many other factors influence an individual family’s choice: How much can they afford to pay? Do they prefer family childcare, where one person cares for mixed-age children in her home, or a childcare center, which tends to group kids of the same age? Patty Craft and her husband, Don Hall, of Pennsauken, NJ, spent a lot of time thinking about childcare for their daughter, Cameron, who began childcare at 5 weeks. Dead set against placing her in full-time care, they chose to split the care between themselves and a caregiver. Craft spends two days at home with Cameron, Hall stays home one day, and the baby spends the rest of the week in family childcare.

One of the most difficult decisions parents face is whether to choose family childcare or a center. For Lisa Sachs, who took her 5-month-old daughter, Mara, to a local provider, the initial choice was easy. "I thought family childcare would be more stable and personal," she says. But her caregiver, who was in the midst of a divorce, soon left town, forcing Sachs to enter another unstable family childcare situation. Not long afterwards, however, she enrolled her daughter in a childcare center at a local college.

Can childcare centers offer the same intimacy as family care? Sherilynn Kimble, who oversees The Caring Center in Philadelphia (which enrolls 133 children, including 20 infants), believes it can. "We make it as family-like as possible," she says. "Moms who are close by can come in and nurse."

Still, as accommodating and stable as it may be, a large facility might not satisfy a parent’s desire for an intimate atmosphere with children of different ages. Licensing regulations often require childcare centers to segregate infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; family childcare, on the other hand, usually offers a wider age span. "Because younger babies are more demanding, it makes sense to mix ages to maximize the caregiver’s time," says Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University and the author of The Transition to Parenthood. "But you don’t want so many older kids that they’ll literally run over the younger ones."

And, of course, parents can’t assume that just because a family provider offers a homier atmosphere, the care will be outstanding. After all, if one provider has six or eight children of different ages in her charge, she still won’t be able to give quality care. Perhaps the best idea, according to Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, an organization that researches work-family issues, is for parents to examine both childcare options as objectively as possible. "Although a home may seem like a more nurturing environment," she says, "you can’t assume that it’s going to be more caring or stable, or that a center is going to be more bureaucratic or remote."