Rebecca Williamson looks at the pros and cons of childcare options to help you decide what’s right for you and your little ones.
You’ve been swept up in a wonderful whirlwind of nappy changes, teething and cuddles. You’ve lost countless hours of sleep while pacing the hallway at 3am, and felt more love for your child than you ever could have imagined. Alas, for some of us, reality eventually bites, the bills need to be paid and the time comes to say goodbye to full-time babyland, and hello to the juggling act of life as a working mum.
But who will take care of your child? Grandma? A daycare centre? Perhaps even a nanny?
Handing over your cherished child to the care of someone else can be a daunting prospect. The trick is to do your research and select a childcare provider that best suits you and your family, the nature of your job and working hours, your budget and above all, your little one.
There are now more than 4000 licensed early childhood education (ECE) services throughout New Zealand. With so many to choose from, this all-important decision is now even harder for parents to make. ECE expert and mum-of-five Dr Sarah Farquhar, founder of myece.org.nz, a website which assesses childcare and education services, says there’s huge variation in the quality of childcare available. Put simply, some providers stick just to minimum standards, while others go above and beyond.
“It’s important to pay particular attention to things such as how the children are viewed and treated, how your child reacts to being at the service, what sorts of activities are offered, and if you’re not staying with your child as you would at Playcentre, then it’s important the staff are qualified teachers,” she says.
While each individual facility or carer needs to be scrutinised in terms of suitability for your child, we weigh up the pros and cons of the various childcare and education options available:
If you want consistent, one-on-one care for your child, a nanny can be your fairy godmother. Most professional nannies are qualified in childcare and education, and take care of your child in your own home. She can also be relied upon to do light housework and cooking and is usually paid by the hour.
• A nanny who is a qualified caregiver and early childhood educator should be able to offer a high level of care.
• Consistency: Your wee one can form a happy and trusting relationship with a nanny who adheres to her daily routine.
• Nannies are usually flexible with their working hours.
• They can be expensive – if you work full-time, a nanny could cost $1000 a week. Another option is to consider a nanny-share arrangement with another family.
• Always do your homework before hiring a nanny – some are more qualified and experienced than others.
• Nannies are entitled to holidays and sick days, so you will need a Plan B for those occasions.
Cost: $18-$25 per hour.
The au pair
Having a stranger living in your house is not everyone’s cup of tea, but many an au-pair employer will tell you that, once the awkwardness of getting to know each other has passed, it can be an enlightening experience for both you and your children – particularly if they are inadvertently learning a new culture or language.
Au pair is French for “equal to” – which means the au pair is considered to be part of the family rather than domestic help. The host is required to provide accommodation, meals and a weekly allowance in return for childcare plus basic cooking and cleaning. Placements usually last between six and 12 months.
• Flexibility – you won’t be charged extra for being home 10 minutes late!
• Au pairs can help with basic day-to-day cooking and cleaning tasks.
• A cost-effective option, particularly if you have more than one child.
• Most au pairs have no formal childcare training.
• You need to be open to sharing your personal space with a stranger.
• Physical space – you need a separate, private room for the au pair.
Cost: Around $200 for a 40-hour week, plus accommodation and meals.
Want your child to learn in a home environment, but can’t afford a nanny or au pair? An in-home educator could be the answer.
Agencies such as PORSE, Barnados and Home Grown Kids offer carers who look after up to four children (only two of whom can be under two years old) at a time in their own home.
According to the Ministry of Education, many children feel more comfortable in small groups. Kids also learn when exposed to the realities of day-to-day life, such as baking or hanging out the washing, as if they were home with Mum or Dad.
That being said, it’s important to ask questions before signing up with an in-home carer. For example, how does she collect older kids from school with your baby in her care? Will other adults be in the home with your child? What about pets? Will she feed your child or do you supply the food?
• Home-based care is cheaper than a nanny.
• A maximum of only four children can be cared for at a time, which means more attention and less exposure to illness.
• Most carers are trained or experienced.
• Unlike a nanny or au pair, you’ll have to drop off and pick up your child from the carer’s house.
• In-home care can offer less stimulation and educational opportunities than a daycare facility.
• If your carer falls ill, you’ll need a back-up.
Cost: Charges range from $5-$15 per hour.
A traditional daycare centre is a private facility with both qualified teachers and carers for young babies right through to six-year-olds. Currently, the minimum ratio is one adult per five infants, or one adult to 10 preschoolers, but Dr Farquhar urges parents to look for a daycare centre that trumps this.
“If there’s one adult to every three or four infants and toddlers then that is likely to mean children will get more and better interaction and attention,” she says. “If there’s one adult to every seven or eight preschoolers then that is good too.”
Many centres provide nutritious meals and offer a loosely structured routine of outdoor and indoor play, stories, music and naps, and allow your child to mix with other babies or kids of the same age.
• An affordable option catering for both full and half days.
• Provides opportunities for socialising and different activities in a fun environment.
• Reliable – there’ll always be a carer to look after your child, and they’re open during school holidays.
• Strict opening and closing hours apply.
• Daycare centres tend to be noisy places, which may not suit all kids.
• The good ones book up quickly so your child may need to go on a waiting list.
Cost: Charges vary, depending on what part of the country you live in. Preschoolers will be eligible for the 20 hours ECE subsidy.
Community crèche and Playcentre
Community crèches are not-for-profit and usually run by a charitable organisation, church or community group in conjunction with qualified teachers, carers and parent helpers.
Playcentres, on the other hand, are run by parents, with newborns to school-age children welcome. The adult/child ratio ranges from one to three to one to five. Because of the parent involvement at Playcentre, it’s not a suitable form of childcare for working mothers.
• Community crèches tend to be cheaper than other forms of childcare.
• They provide a good foundation for starting school or kindergarten.
• Session times tend to be shorter (morning or afternoon) and they close during school holidays.
• Most crèches prefer children to be at least 12 months old and walking.
Cost: A three or four-hour crèche session varies from $12 to $30. Playcentre donations can range up to $50 for a term.
The family member
She’s just as mad about your little angel as you are, so you can rest assured your child will be loved and cared for while you’re at work. But while your mother-in-law is a saint for taking care of your little one for 40 hours a week, you could have differing opinions on what’s best for your baby, which could prove tricky in the long run.
•The cost is likely to be very low and the hours flexible.
• Your child already has a strong relationship with the caregiver, who is someone you trust.
• As it’s an informal arrangement, the carer is unlikely to be qualified. Potential conflicts over your expectations and their childcare style may be harder to resolve.
• Your little one may not get as many opportunities to socialise with other littlies as with other forms of childcare.
Cost: Low cost, or even free.
Kindergartens, Montessori and private early learning centres
Once your child turns three, public kindergartens, Montessori and private early learning centres can be an ideal stepping stone to starting school. Language nests, such as kohanga reo, are also an option for parents who wish to immerse their kids in Maori or Pacific Island culture and language.
As these ECE services vary greatly, it pays to visit and find out about their education philosophies, qualified teacher/child ratios, learning activities and safety policies. Pay attention to how the teachers interact with the kids – are they actively engaging with them, or just supervising? Do they get down to a child’s level when speaking to them?
• Most introduce structured learning as well as free play.
• They’re generally affordable – particularly when combined with the 20 hours ECE subsidy.
• These services are great ways for children to socialise and gain confidence in bigger groups.
• Most of these centres close during the school holidays.
• While some now offer full-day sessions, most are half-days – not ideal for parents who work full-time.
Cost: A cost of $4-$10 per hour is common. However, you can claim the government’s 20 hours of free ECE for three, four and five-year-olds (most childcare options previously mentioned, including agency-based nannies and au pairs, are also eligible for this subsidy from age three, excluding the informal care).
A trend gaining traction with mothers who work part-time, a “Mum Swap” is when friends work different days or hours and care for each other’s kids. While it’s a mutually beneficial form of childcare, be sure to discuss your expectations, such as meals, discipline and appropriate activities beforehand. While you may get along great as mates, you could clash as mums.
• It’s flexible, fair and free!
• Your child will always have another companion to learn and play with, and will be looked after by someone familiar.
• Your friendship could be affected by potential childcare conflicts.
• It’s unlikely both mums will be formally trained early childhood carers.
Rebecca Williamson lives in Wanaka with her husband Cory and their eight-month-old daughter Indiana.