Daycare vs au pair vs nanny: pros and cons

You have three main options with childcare

Childcare. A particularly strong pain point in the US. You especially understand this stress if you are a new mother trying to make your work-life split exist.

With the inflexibility of my career, I consistently felt this pain. I knew I couldn’t be at two places at once, but I tried to have some managerial competency in providing my children decent care.

Initially, I did what was standard and expected. I “splurged” on center-based care and when that became difficult to pull off, I experimented with caretakers at home.

Over time, I became exhausted listening to, reading about and experiencing the shortfalls of our society providing high quality childcare.

I had no choice but to become more practical than I ever had been. I needed a system of childcare which had buffering, redundancy, and trust built in. Quality was a top concern, because the early development of children is pretty high stakes.

I personally found refuge in omnichannel childcare. Before I arrived there, I had to understand the ups and downs of childcare centers (for simplicity this entails any type of formalized care including preschool, center and home based daycare), au pairs, and nannies.

Childcare center pros

Evidence conscious curriculum

From infancy, center-based care follows a routine that is backed by the principles of early childhood development. Because center-based care is highly regulated, there are systems and protocols in place that lend to checking off important boxes in children’s growth.

Daycare offers real time updates

Socialization

Children are exposed to other children daily. Naturally this lends itself to opportunities for social learning and emotional regulation.

Protective effects

Substantial research has demonstrated a number of benefits of center-based care. While no reasonable person will claim that daycare will advance children, what we know is that it is helpful in preventing bottoming out, like dropping out of high school.  

Childcare center cons

Variability in quality by setting

While it is true that regulated institutional daycare follows some standard, the same doesn’t always apply to home-based daycare (where several different children are cared for in someone’s home). As a result, there is some data that shows a material difference in child developmental outcomes.

Nuanced care differences

Even amongst institutional centers which are held to high standards, quality is on a gradient. In my own experience, the high cost of daycare did not always translate to a personalized, high quality experience.

So it wasn’t a surprise to see the data that most childcare centers in the US provide care that is somewhere between fair and good.

Impractical

There is a lot of work associated with daycare, including: commuting, pickup/drop-off procedures, bottle/bag/food prep, separation issues. There is variability in daycare hours too.

Most of the coveted preschools in my area had a hard start at 9AM. By that time after factoring in my commute, I would already be well into a quarter of the way into my workday.

Commuting to daycare over time becomes inefficient

Cost

Daycare is expensive. At the upper end it costs $2,500 - $3,500 per month per child for full-time care in major metropolitan areas. Even if your workplace offers tax-deductible funds to help pay for childcare, the total amount is typically no more than $5,000 for the entire year.

Millennials in particular spend a significant portion of their income on daycare.

Millennials easily spend over 30% of their income on daycare for infants

Even after considering these cons, you may still be a strong believer in formalized early childhood education. I started to consider in-home care from an au pair or nanny after some rethinking and exploration.  

Notably, there is general consensus that a child's development is more influenced by the quality of the parent-child interaction and home environment than the basics of institutional care.

"Parent and family characteristics are more strongly linked to child development than are child care features" - National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Au pairs (mostly women who are 18-26 years old from select countries) and nannies (childcare professionals) offer a very flexible childcare situation. Even for mothers who work remotely or are doing the hard, unpaid work of being the household manager, this level of care offers the support and protected time necessary to function.

Basic definition of an au pair and nanny

Au pair pros

Compliance and flexibility

Au pairs tend to be compliant, because they are strongly incentivized to make everything work out with their host families.

The most cynical perspective is that au pairs are subject to a power imbalance in which they don't have any choice but to make things work.

The most optimistic view is recognizing they are a group of strong, practical women taking a risk in a new country to do the hard labor of childcare. They offer flexibility as you work together on the schedule.

Trust

When an au pair first comes to your house, she is fairly reliant on you. In my experience, the parent within me awoke.  I saw her as part of my family. Sometimes even better than family since I couldn't depend on anyone related to me to help me.

This view is the premise of au pair agency marketing, and in the best of matching situations, it bears true. A strong level of trust develops as she is incorporated into your personal life and all the things that come with it, including professional relationships and general conflicts.

"Because you believed I was capable of behaving decently, I did." – Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym

Rewarding

The best host parents view the au pair as a younger person with no children who is seeking cultural exchange and adventure. The au pair is not the typical employee. She is a young person who is building formative experiences.

A different set of soft skills is required to create a relationship with an au pair who will return your good will in spades. You are now modeling behavior for both your kids and the au pair.

Foreign language exposure

It is not uncommon that your child's first words may be in another language if they are being taken care of by an au pair.

The constant exposure of another language is reinforced by the concept of cultural exchange, where an au pair's ways of expressive love in her language aids in the child's development.

🗣 Children who learn another language early on demonstrate stronger creative, analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills. -The effects of bilingual growth on toddlers’ executive function in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Affordability

The base cost of an au pair is roughly $21,000 annually, plus additional lifestyle expenses. While an au pair's base wage is low, she obtains value from room and board which is substantial in expensive metropolitan areas.

Au pair cons

Wide variability in talent and maturity

Because of the age of the women in the program (18-26), there is a range of life experience or lack thereof.

While age is not always correlated to maturity, I think you end up gambling in the au pair match process.

Agency cost

Almost half of the $21,000 is spent on agency administration. While the agency is important for regulation and accountability, their work is less visible if you have a good match and there are no conflicts.

But of course there are conflicts, fanned by strong economic and cultural forces.

Nanny pros

Professionalism

The main differentiator of a nanny is through her identity as a childcare worker. The nanny is more dedicated to childcare, because she has chosen it as her primary way of making money.

There might be motivational differences in the cohort, but overall her main purpose is to provide professional childcare, whether she lives in or outside your home.

More privacy and autonomy

Nannies, whether they are on demand, on a schedule, or in a live-in arrangement, tend to offer families more privacy.

They are completely autonomous. You don’t have to worry about getting a social security card for her like you would with an au pair.

Credentials

Because nannies are employees, her credentials are usually transparent and easy to understand.  This may be her only job, career, or calling.  

Nannies tend to have verifiable credentials

Nanny cons

Costs

Nannies are expensive and there are responsibilities you may need to shoulder including payroll taxes and health insurance. You likely will pay more than 2-3 times what you would for au pair care for the same number of hours.

Variability

Not shockingly there is variability in quality of nannies. Blame the various sourcing agencies or how the US does not compensate child care workers decently.  

Even more controversial is the fact that many nannies have their own children. I have often wondered about the developmental outcomes of those children as their care options may be compromised. I wonder how that affects overall morale for the women in the industry who desire the same things you and I do.

We’ve discussed pros and cons of daycare, au pair and nanny care. There are other options  including leveraging extended family and you supplying the care as well.

Ultimately, the most sustainable childcare solution depends on your specific constraints and values.

What I have made a priority for myself is omnichannel childcare.

A different take?

let's connect
Subscribe to Milk Drunk Mondays
my newsletter on productivity and lifestyle design
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
See examples before you subscribe
Support
Support content that promotes mothers living more healthier, productive lives.

Donations processed securely by PayPal. Learn more about what your dollars support.