Living

How to find childcare

Whether you choose day care or a live-in nanny, what’s the best situation for you and your family?

If finding the perfect caregiver for your little one were as simple as waiting for Mary Poppins to float into your life, you’d never have to fret about picking a suitable daycare centre or hiring the best nanny. Choosing where and whom to leave your kids with from nine to five is one of those major parental decisions that can nag at you all day and keep you up at night. While it would be marvellous if one of those British nannies on TV could mind your brood, it takes time and research to find the childcare that works best for you. Here’s a primer to get you started with your search.

Whether you’re heading back to work after a mat leave or you’ve moved to a new city, there are lots of factors to consider before your search begins, such as your schedule, location (Do you want childcare near your home, office or kid’s school?) and how much you can afford.

Next, consider your parenting style; you’ll want a caregiver who shares your childcare philosophies and goals, says Cathy Betteridge, a director at Panda Child Development Centres in Calgary. If you’d prefer to send your child to a place that’s licensed and government regulated, run by professionals and one that offers an age-appropriate curriculum with daily routines, then childcare centres might be right for you. If you’d rather take your child to a caregiver’s house where an intimate and small group setting is embraced, think about home childcare. And if you’re looking for help with your wee ones and some daily chores, you may opt for a live-in nanny.

Whichever route you choose, you can start your search by looking through the Yellow Pages, community newspapers or bulletin boards at your local recreational centres and schools. You can also do an initial online search by typing “childcare” and the name of your city into Google. Or check your provincial government’s website for information on regulated childcare centres and subsidies. (In British Columbia, for instance, you can visit the province’s Ministry of Children and Family at www.mcf.gov.bc.ca.)

Depending on your child’s age, childcare centres can be anything from a nursery school to a before-and-after-school program. Begin by calling a handful of potential centres and ask how long they’ve been operating, if they’re licensed, the age range of the children in their care and the ratio of staff to children. You should also ask about availability (Are they accepting new clients? What are their hours?); staff (What are their qualifications? How many adults are onsite?); and cost (What’s the monthly fee – depending on age and where you live, you could be looking at $800 to $1,000 per month per child in cities such as Toronto and Ottawa – and what does it include?).

Follow up your phone calls by scheduling a tour, or better yet, drop in unannounced to see how the centre functions, says Betteridge. Pay attention to the environment (Is it clean? What age-appropriate toys are available?); safety (Are there smoke detectors? Are emergency procedures rehearsed and posted?); children (Do they look content? Are they interacting with adults?); staff (Are they attentive and pleasant? What is their approach to discipline?); and routines (Are activities clearly posted? What’s the lunchtime menu?). At this point, you should ask about medication, illness, parent involvement and late policies, and whether a government subsidy is available.

Go through a private home-daycare agency to find a placement for little Susie, or conduct the search yourself. No matter how you choose to do it, you’ll want to look for someone who promotes a supportive learning environment in their home, says Naomi Bernard, a home-based caregiver in Aurora, Ont., who says parents can expect smaller group sizes (only five children allowed at a time), continuity with the same caregiver, a more flexible setting and generally lower rates (prices range from about $30 to $50 per day per child).

She says it’s essential for parents to visit potential caregivers’ homes and to meet their family a couple of times before making a decision. They should also ask about the number of children in the program, hours, health policies (many caregivers don’t accept children with high fevers, diarrhea, pink eye or head lice, for instance), television rules, sample menus, daily schedules and references.

Be prepared for the caregiver to have her own questionnaire, says Bernard. She’ll ask for parent contact information, medical history, favourite toys, allergies, diet restrictions, emergency contacts and who is permitted to pick the children up. “You need to give permission for everything from emergency care and taking photos to the type of sunscreen they should wear,” she says.

Finding a nanny is all about finding the right match, says Maria McGraw, a recruiter at Toronto-based Nanny Providers Canada. “It will mean having an extra adult and parent in the home. She’ll have a very close relationship with the entire family.” (Think of the perennially upbeat Fraulein Maria and the von Trapp bunch in The Sound of Music.) A live-out nanny comes to your home before you leave for the office in the morning and goes home when you return in the evening, while a live-in nanny moves in.

The most common way to find a live-in is through an agency, which will conduct an extensive search based on your family’s interests, neighbourhood and previous childcare experience. “We get in the mindset of parents to determine what they want in a nanny,” McGraw says. Typically, the agency runs a match to find suitable candidates for a family; parents receive an in-depth profile of the nanny, references, qualifications and certificates, and a transcript of the interview.

If you choose a nanny from another country, she’ll be given a work permit, and your responsibility is solely to provide room and board plus a paycheque. The hours they work and the rate you pay is government regulated and varies by province. (In Ontario, for example, the workweek is generally around 40 hours and most nannies make a minimum of $9.25 an hour.)