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Finding the Right Childcare Fit

What Are My Options? There are pros and cons to every arrangement, and some of them might surprise you. Sitters, for example, can often be the cheaper choice if you have several kids, because family daycare and larger centers charge per child, says Ann Douglas, Ontario-based author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare and a mother of four. A center might sound impersonal, but it actually may have many qualified caregivers who are able to give their charges plenty of attention. The moral here: Don't set up any one category as "ideal"  -- it's not.

What Does My Child Need? It varies with a child's stage of development, says Abbey Griffin, Ph.D., a childcare expert with Zero to Three, a national center in Washington, DC, focusing on the needs of infants and toddlers. "Once you've determined that the situation is safe and sanitary, you need to look at the relationships and the structure of the child's day," she notes. For infants, that means caregivers who will hold, sing to, and talk to them; who are sensitive to their temperament and routines; and who provide adequate stimulation, such as a variety of toys and an effort to change environments throughout the day.

For toddlers, physical activity is key. They need plenty of room inside as well as out; space for a broad range of activities (quiet reading corners versus noisy music rooms); and caregivers who are willing to help them negotiate socialization issues  -- What's mine? What's yours? When can I have it? Preschoolers need exposure to early learning (letters, shapes, counting, and coloring), and patient caregivers who can help them when it comes to putting on jackets, tying shoes, and cleaning up after toilet accidents.

What Are My Needs? Forgetting about yourself is a big mistake. "If your childcare arrangement is a constant source of aggravation for you, then you and your family are all going to be more stressed," says Douglas. So think about factors that could affect your sanity: long drives out of your way for the drop-off and pickup, or the amount of time you're spending packing lunches and diaper bags every night. If an arrangement is ideal for your child, then you may want to bend your priorities. But don't be a martyr: Kids are pretty adaptable, as long as you're not randomly switching providers every few months.