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Returning to work: 4 key considerations for choosing the right childcare option for you and your child

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For many mums, returning to work after taking time off means finding a suitable childcare arrangement for your child. Finding the right option can make a considerable difference to your experience. But where do you start, and what should you consider?

In the first of a two-part article focused on finding and transitioning to childcare, Kirsty Foster of Little Learners shares four key considerations for choosing the right childcare option for you and your child.

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Congratulations! Returning to work can be an exciting time. Adult conversation, a sense of renewed independence, getting back into your career and earning again, and even the smaller things like going to the toilet without little people in tow, and having a lunch break! These are the things I relished when returning to work after staying at home with my three children.

As well as feelings of excitement, however, you may be experiencing some nervousness and uncertainty. This is normal. This new chapter signals a change to your routine, and perhaps for the first time, you will be entrusting someone else to care for your child.

Choosing the right childcare option is an important step in helping you settle into your new routine as a family. With an option that fits well with your work routine, and the confidence that your child is happy and thriving in their new environment, you are more likely to succeed in this new chapter.

So what should you be thinking about? Here are four key considerations to help you with this journey.

1. Convenience

First things first, your choice of ECE (Early Childhood Education) provider should be convenient.  This should either be close to your home or close to your work. Try to avoid adding stress to your morning by having to drive half an hour in a different direction.  What might seem tenable at the time of enrolment might soon seem unnecessary once the pressure is on at work, and you’re all tired.

If you’re looking at options close to work, consider whether the commute time is reasonable for your little one. This could be a wonderful time to chat about their day and sing songs and bond, or you could find yourself with a tired and hungry child, crying on the way home after a long day, and this could get unpleasant very quickly (which reminds me – always have snacks and drinks and special toys for the ride home – this is a lifesaver after a long day). If you’re breastfeeding, an option close to your workplace might be favourable.

Another important point to consider is if there was an emergency, or your child became ill or injured, would you or another close friend or family member be able to collect your child reasonably swiftly?  These are all important logistical things to consider.


2. Consider the different types of Early Childhood Education Services

The next thing you need to consider is the kind of ECE environment that will best fit your working schedule, and your child’s needs. Here’s an overview of some of the common options available.

Daycare / Pre-School / Full Day Early Learning Centre (ELC) – These are often a great option for working parents. They are open early, close late and are open right through the school holidays (usually only closing on statutory holidays), offering you good flexibility with your hours. If a teacher is sick they find a reliever and there is minimal disruption for your family.  There are lots of other children to play with, plenty of resources and the facilities are purpose built with children in mind. The downside of an ELC can be size. In some cases they can be very big with lots of children – and this can be over-stimulating for some children.  Some ELC’s are not like this at all, so it pays to check them out in person. It also pays to check how each ELC structures their enrolment hours – as this can vary from centre to centre.

Home-based Care – If you find the right home-based carer then this can be a great choice. With home-based care, you get a similar programme to an ELC but you get the bonus of having a homely environment and smaller ratios too.  The key is to find the right carer, that you trust.  If home-based care feels right to you, don’t be afraid to visit many homes until you find the right person, and an environment that you love.  It’s also worth checking if there are children of a similar age/interests to your child being cared for on the same days as your child. According to my son and his experiences with home-based care (he’s now eight), this is an important factor as to whether or not home-based care is fun.  One negative about home-based care is that if your carer is unwell or unavailable, you will need to find alternative cover for your child. Sometimes the provider can help you with this, but it could be in an unfamiliar environment for your child. Keep this in mind when considering home-based care as an option.

Kindergarten – Kindergartens are aptly translated to children’s garden. They fully embrace the free play and explorative nature of young children and usually have 100 percent qualified teachers.  They are usually the most affordable option too. For many working parents, however, kindergarten hours don’t suit as they are often sessional (e.g. have sessions such as 8.30 am – 12.30 pm, or 8.30 am – 2.30 pm) and many close in the school holidays.  That said, each kindergarten is different and some are moving to a longer-day model – so before you write kindergartens off as a viable option, it is worth checking this out with your local centre. Kindergartens often require their parent community to help with cleaning, gardening and fundraising too. So bear that in mind when you are considering this as an option.

Special Philosophies – there are many early learning centres that are focused around a particular philosophy, for example Montessori, Steiner, Reggio Emilia, RIE / Pikler, and also those based around particular cultures such as Kohanga Reo.  If you have some of these options in your area, it’s a good idea to google their philosophies first. If it fits with your parenting philosophy then visit the centre to see it in action – you’ll get a sense straight away if it is right for you and your child.

For more information on choosing the right service for your child you can also take a look at the early childhood education guide produced by the Education Review Office. ERO also publishes reports on each ECE, which can be an additional source of information on the quality of your ECE provider. 

Nanny / Au Pair Nannies can be a wonderful option for working parents with very young children as they come to your home, keep to your routines and sometime even help with household jobs.  This convenience comes at a cost, however, with nannies typically charging between $18 and $28 per hour – depending on the area you live in and how qualified they are. Some parents find that doing a nanny-share with a friend or neighbour is a good option as it reduces the cost, and your child has a friend to interact with.

Taking on an au pair can be a more affordable option. Au pairs are often young women or men looking to spend time in a new country, and earn money. They work through an agency, and may have some experience of caring for young children in a formal setting, although this will vary considerably. It can be a more affordable option than a nanny, but offer similar conveniences. However as as a family you must be prepared to have your au pair living with you (as well as the space to host them), provide their meals, and include them in family activities. Additional benefits of an au pair can be the cultural and language experiences they can offer your child, as well as the additional flexibility they can provide to you as a parent.  

Again, with both an au pair and a nanny, it’s important that you find the right person – someone you can trust and feel totally comfortable leaving your child with.  If you do go down this path it’s a good idea to lay down some guidelines from the beginning – such as how much technology you would like your child exposed to, behaviour and consequences, your child’s diet, etc. – as well as being clear on any expectation on household duties.

Twenty hours of free ECE: Once your child turns three, and up until they go to school, you are entitled to 20 hours of free education from the government.  This is limited to six hours per day, however, so families usually spread this across the week to get maximum benefit. You can take advantage of this subsidy through any of the ECE providers mentioned above (including nannies and au pairs) as long as they are part of a licenced service. There can be additional fees beyond the 20 free hours, and each provider differs. It is a good idea to ask each ECE provider directly about the 20 hours of free education, even if your child is not yet entitled to it. Education.govt.nz also offers more information on the 20 hours of free ECE.

Childcare Subsidy – There is also a subsidy provided by Working for Families that can help with childcare costs. It is means tested, however, so I suggest you take a look at their website to see what this means for you. 


3. How do you know if an environment is right for your child?

You’ve done your groundwork and have narrowed down the options to a handful of places that are convenient, fit your parenting philosophy, and have spaces on the days and times that you require care.  Next it’s time to pay them a visit. This can be done with or without your child for the initial visit. The manager / head teacher will want to give you a tour, and this is a great way to get a feel for the environment.  I have also compiled a checklist to support your discussions and help you compare the different childcare options you explore. This checklist can also be downloaded, for free, from my website.

Your checklist for choosing the right Early Learning Environment:

  • Is there a primary carer philosophy? (where each child is assigned to one particular teacher for settling, and who documents their learning)
  • Are the teacher/carers friendly, nurturing, and gentle?
  • Is there a positive, friendly, cosy, calm atmosphere? It shouldn’t feel too hectic.
  • Do the children seem happy and busy? The odd child crying is normal (especially at drop off time) but look out for lots of children crying, this is a warning sign.
  • Does the environment seem clean and hygienic?
  • If home-based care, are the children allowed to watch TV and use devices? How long for?
  • Does the environment have a means for sharing the children’s learning? (e.g. a folder with learning stories, or this could be digital).
  • Are there plenty of opportunities for outdoor explorative play?
  • Are there also opportunities for quiet, independent play?
  • Is it a place where you would like to spend long periods of time?
  • If your child is with you, did the teachers take the time to get down to his/her level and engage with your child in a respectful manner?

4. Making your Decision

When you have been through each of the childcare options on your short list and have assessed these against the checklist, it’s time to sit down and analyse your thoughts.  You will already have a gut feel as to which option is the best fit, and I encourage you to trust your instincts – they are usually right. It’s a good idea, however, to also go through the checklist to see if they confirm what you were already thinking.

Once you have made your decision, you will want to arrange transition visits for your child.  These visits are a valuable way of supporting your child to become familiar with their new childcare arrangement, and to feel happy and secure in their new routine.

This topic is covered in my follow-on article, where I share five practical strategies to help your child transition to your new routine with confidence.

Good luck with your search for childcare, and with this new chapter of your parenting journey. I hope you find the option that is right for you and your family. 

Kirsty Foster is a mum of three, and a qualified and experienced early childhood and primary school teacher. She is also the founder of Little Learners – an online community where she shares her knowledge, skills and experience to help make parenting easier for New Zealand families.

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