It might seem a little counterintuitive, but the best time to start thinking about child care is before you have a baby.
You Need Child Care For Your Baby. Here’s How To Start Your Search
Infant and toddler care is the most expensive kind of child care and often the most difficult to find. The reality is that there are not enough spaces in Los Angeles for every kid that needs care.
This guide is geared toward parents and caregivers looking for child care for kiddos from birth to 24 months old. A lot of this advice also applies to the search for 3- and 4-year-olds, but we won’t get into the preschool specifics.
The whole process can be emotionally and financially daunting. Even experts we talked to said before they became parents, they had no idea how to find an affordable spot in a complex web of child care programs.
We talked to parents, child care providers, advocates, and people who specialize in helping families find the resources they need to care for their children.
“Regardless of anyone’s income or socioeconomic status, they should have a choice for their children,” said Maisha Cole, deputy director at the Child Care Law Center. “They should be able to want their children to be in a loving, healthy, caring environment, so they can go to work, so they can take care of their family.”
Why is child care so expensive and hard to find?
When Christina’s Nigrelli’s second child was born she made just under $9 an hour teaching at a faith-based child care program in Irvine.
She was a single parent and said it would have cost about $2,000 a month to enroll her newborn and 2-year-old in the child care program where she worked.
It wasn’t until she quit her job, moved home, and enrolled in college that she learned she could get financial help from the state to pay for child care.
“I thought I won an award or the lotto,” Nigrelli said. “I was just in tears and elated.”
The 2-year-old could enroll in a free program right away. Her youngest daughter joined a long waitlist.
“Working in the field, I had no knowledge of all of these other programs that existed that could be able to help me,” Nigrelli said.
We should mention Nigrelli went through this in the late 1990s and it hasn’t gotten easier, or more affordable, for many families to find care in the early years of their child’s life.
There are about 240,000 children between birth and 24 months old in Los Angeles County.
There’s enough licensed child care spaces for about 11% of infants here, said independent early childhood consultant Katie Fallin Kenyon.
That figure is based on the 9,800 spaces in infant care centers and assumption that about one-third of home-based child care spaces could be filled by infants or toddlers.
“From a business perspective, it’s much less expensive to serve a 4-year-old than it is to serve an infant,” Kenyon said.
For example, the biggest cost for child care providers is often employee pay and benefits. Licensing regulations require that child care centers have one adult for every four infants. (The California agency that oversees those providers says an infant is any child up to 24 months old.)
The older the child, the fewer adults required to be on the payroll. The ratio for children 2–6 years old is one adult for every eight to 12 children. Licensed family child care providers can care for up to four infants at a time.
Long Beach child care provider Chelsea Topps said she usually has a waiting list of half a dozen families and often fields calls from frustrated parents. “It’s not that we don’t want to accept your children,” Topps said. “It’s [that] we literally can’t.”
There were almost 9% fewer licensed child care spaces in California in 2021 than there were a decade before. One factor in the decline is the thin margins many providers operate on.
Regardless of anyone’s income or socioeconomic status, they should have a choice for their children.
— Maisha Cole, deputy director at the Child Care Law Center
Providers must balance running their business with what parents can afford to pay. The average annual cost of infant care in California is $1,412 a month, according to a 2020 estimate from the Economic Policy Institute. Over a year, that’s more than in-state tuition at a 4-year college.
There are some free and subsidized child care programs for low-income families — more on those below — but they don’t reach the majority of eligible kids.
For Christina Nigrelli, who is California’s senior director of programs for the national nonprofit Zero to Three, finding affordable child care was transformative. She also got connected to food assistance through WIC, finished a bachelor’s degree, then earned a master’s.
“Then other doors started to open,” Nigrelli said.
“But if not for that [child care] program, I don’t know how I would’ve gone to school.”
What are the different kinds of child care?
Let’s define some common child care terms with help from the California Department of Social Services.
Licensed care: There are two main types of child care licensed and regulated by the California Department of Social Services.
- Child care centers: A commercial facility that may also offer early education programs for older children on-site. Typically operates during standard business hours.
- Family/ home-based child care: People that care for children in their own homes. These providers may offer more flexible hours, including early morning, evening, weekend, and less than 24-hour care. Small family child care homes are licensed for up to eight children, large family child care homes can have 14 children at any given time.
Un-licensed or license-exempt care: providers who are not regulated by the state’s department of social services.
- Family, friend, and neighbor care/ relative caregivers: A form of un-licensed or license-exempt child care. Low-income families may qualify for the family member, friend or neighbor to receive payments to care for their kids.
- Nannies/ in-home care: An arrangement where a single person watches a family’s child or children on a set schedule. Nannies may work independently or connect to families through agencies.
Subsidized child care: An umbrella term for publicly funded free and reduced-cost child care programs. This includes programs available to CalWORKS recipients, Early Head Start, state-funded center-based child care and development, the California State Preschool Program, and others.
Early Head Start: A child care and family support program for pregnant women and children under age 3. The federally funded program has a variety of options including in-home and center-based care.
Start your search ASAP
Chelsea Topps said when she first opened her home-based child care more than a decade ago, she’d turn away inquiries from pregnant people — no baby, no spot.
“Now I realized, like, if you don’t do that, then it’s gonna be too late, almost,” Topps said.
It’s never too early to start thinking about what type of support you’ll need to care for your family and, if it’s part of the plan, return to work.
As soon as we found out we were expecting, we probably should have started touring centers.
— Osvaldo Colin, Covina parent
For publicly funded programs, your child does have to be born to be added to an eligibility waitlist, but some private child care programs allow you to get in line while still pregnant.
“I think my wife and I would probably agree that as soon as we found out we were expecting, we probably should have started touring centers,” said Covina parent Osvaldo Colin. “Those last two months where we were kind of scrambling to figure out like ‘OK, the baby’s actually on its way, like, what are we going to do?’”
One suggestion is to start your search six months to a year before you’ll need child care. If you’re reading this and need care NOW, it’s OK, we’re still here to help.
Questions to ask as you look for a provider
As you start to look for child care, answering these will help narrow down your search:
- When will you need child care?
- How much can you afford to pay for child care?
- How many hours a week will you need child care?
- Is there a family, friend, or neighbor that could help out?
- Do you have specific cultural preferences — like the type of food a child will eat or the language that will be spoken to them?
- Is it more helpful to have child care near your home, or near your place of employment?
- What type of setting do you imagine your child in? A cozy home? Playing outdoors? A place where they can stay until kindergarten?
- Are you planning to have another child? If so, you might consider a provider that is not at full capacity so the new baby has a better chance of getting to join their sibling.
- What will you do if your child care provider is unavailable? Who can provide back-up care?
Child care is one of the highest monthly expenses for many families. The average multi-racial, Black, or Native American family spends nearly 9% of their income on child care, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The nonprofit Child Care Aware of America has a budget template to help you understand your current expenses and how much you can afford to pay for care.
Start to collect the information you’ll likely need to enroll your child in a program once you find it. These suggestions from from the California Department of Social Services and the Los Angeles County Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education:
- Copy of child’s:
- Original birth certificate
- Immunization history and medical assessment, including any current medications and instructions for providing them
- Information about child’s food restrictions and allergies
- Name and contact information for:
- The child’s doctor and dentist
- Who can pick up your child
- Who to call in case of an emergency
- If you think you might qualify for subsidized care you will also need copies of:
- Documents that verify your income like pay stubs, unemployment, workers compensation and child support checks
- Contact information for your employer
- Work schedules
- College or job-training enrollment forms
The ‘best kept’ child care secret
Resource and referral agencies (R&Rs) are community-based organizations, funded in part by the state. Every R&R is a little different, but one of their primary roles is to help families access child care. They also provide training and support to child care providers.
“We’re the best kept secret,” said Jerri Stewart, a resource and referral manager for the Child Care Resource Center. “All of the services that we offer to families are free.”
Here’s where to find the one nearest you.
When you call or email, the person who responds will want to know more about what you’re looking for.
“All parents want to do well by their child,” Stewart said. ”They want their child in the best environment that they can possibly be in and we want to support parents and making the choice that’s best for their family and knowing that it’s different for every family.”
R&Rs can help determine if your family qualifies for financial help paying for child care — more on the types of help available below.
All parents want to do well by their child… They want their child in the best environment that they can possibly be in and we want to support parents and making the choice that’s best for their family.
— Jerri Stewart, resource and referral manager, Child Care Resource Center
Each R&R maintains a database of almost every licensed child care provider in their service area. Some R&R’s might also be aware of local nanny agencies. The person you talk to should provide a list of local providers based on your family’s needs.
Andrea Rojas is a resource and referral specialist at R&R Pathways LA and said they can turn around those lists the same day.
Resource and Referral Agencies can help families connect to other resources like rent and food support.
“If you need any help with utilities, with rent, then we can be happy to provide you with [referrals to] those resources as well,” Rojas said.
R&Rs often also provide parenting classes and meet-ups.
“We have parent cafes, which sort of offer a safe space for parents if they wanna talk to other parents, [if] they wanna learn a little bit more about child development,” Rojas said.
Find financial help
There is a web of free and lower-cost child care programs. Often one of the main criteria to enroll is income, but there are other factors that may play a role too, including whether the child has a disability, a parent or caregiver’s employment, and location.
“Each eligibility criteria is going to look a little bit different because the communities that each program serves are a little bit different,” said Delia Vicente, executive director of the UCLA Early Head Start program.
We’ll lay out the basics here, but the best bet is talking to a real live person about your family’s situation. You can contact individual programs directly and your local R&R will have a broader overview of what’s available near your home or workplace.
First, let’s talk about a program that provides child care up to age 3 and support during pregnancy: Early Head Start.
“In a nutshell, our services are comprehensive child development services that not only follow the children’s education, but also all of their needs as children grow,” Vicente said.
Each Early Head Start location’s services might be a little different, but here’s an example of what can be available:
- Informational visits during pregnancy
- Health and developmental screenings
- Support to help parents encourage growth and learning at home
- Home-based child care
- Center-based child care
- Child care for older children through Head Start
- Behavioral specialists
- Referrals to additional community resources
There are dozens of Early Head Start providers in Los Angeles County and you can find the one closest to you online. There are standalone programs and programs that exist on school and university campuses.
“You really have to serve the community where it’s at,” said Wassy Tesfa, executive director of Pacific Clinics Head Start.
Eligibility for Early Head Start depends on multiple factors including:
- Income: Families whose income is at or below the federal poverty guidelines (see below)
- Recipients of public assistance including:
- CalWORKS, our state’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/ TANF program
- CalFresh, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/ SNAP
- Supplemental Security Income, a monthly payment program for adults over 65 years old with limited income and people with disabilities
- Participation in the foster care system
Early Head Start programs also have a limited capacity to accept families who do not meet other requirements.
Second, there are also state-funded child care programs which have their own requirements for families. Here’s an overview adapted from the Child Care Law Center, based in Berkeley.
Families can automatically qualify for child care assistance if they have a child who is:
- Experiencing homelessness
- At risk of or have experienced abuse, neglect or exploitation
- Receiving child protective services
Other families with these characteristics may get help paying for child care if they meet a need requirement, for example, if they are working, searching for work, looking for a home, enrolled in training or school. They include:
- CalWORKS recipients
- Recipients of other public benefits such as Medi-Cal, CalFresh or the California Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- Families with income at or below 85% of the state median income (see more below)
- Migrant families who move from place to place for agricultural work
Depending on which type of subsidized child care families qualify for, they can receive a voucher to use in a licensed child care centers or homes or arrange for a family, friend, or neighbor to be reimbursed to care for their child. Another type of subsidized child care is called a direct service program and is available at child care centers.
Rojas said it usually takes a couple of weeks to get a family enrolled in a subsidized child care program.
Families caring for foster children also get an emergency voucher to pay for care when a child is unexpectedly placed in their home.
All about nannies
Some families might prefer to have a single person care for their child. Nannies or in-home care providers can work full- or part-time.
Nanny or in-home care costs Californians an average of $30,184 a year, according to a survey from website Care.com and the think tank New America.
In a nanny share, the provider cares for children from multiple families and the cost is split among them.
Families can find nannies through agencies or independently through word of mouth and on websites like Care.com. An agency may do background checks, verify a nanny’s credentials and provide additional training opportunities.
I don’t want your children to think of me as an extension of you. I want them to think of me as an extension of their teacher.
— Melissa Rivera, former Oxnard-based nanny
Melissa Rivera has worked with children for more than a decade and most recently was a nanny specializing in newborn care in Oxnard.
One key to a successful relationship is setting clear expectations, Rivera said. That includes an outline of what kind of tasks the nanny is responsible for, what their relationship with the children is, etc. For example, Rivera wasn’t in charge of household chores, and compared her work to that of an educator.
“I don’t want your children to think of me as an extension of you,” Rivera said. “I want them to think of me as an extension of their teacher.”
Rivera said clients should expect to pay for a full-time nanny’s sick and vacation days.
“[Nannies] have families, they have kids,” Rivera said. “They have lives outside of you, respect that.”
Visit a child care center — and bring these questions
Ask questions. The child care providers we talked to say they welcome questions big and small from parents and caregivers.
“I always try to reassure them that everything’s gonna be OK,” Long Beach provider Topps said.
Try to meet with your provider in the setting they’ll be working in or visit the facility before enrolling your child so you can observe the surroundings and how staff interact with the babies in their care.
“It’s really good… when you’re doing a visit, to go at drop-off time or pickup time to see, how do they engage with the parents?” said Jerri Stewart, who once worked at an infant center before her time at the Child Care Resource Center. She said staff should be responsive to a child’s needs, rather than expecting every baby to follow the same schedule as other children.
“Babies are not left to cry,” Stewart said. “They are fed when they are hungry.”
Here are some questions to help guide your observations:
- How are people interacting with children? “Infants need social interaction too,” Cole said. “They shouldn’t just be laying there all day.”
- Does the indoor and outdoor environment look clean, safe, and comfortable?
Here are some questions you can ask the provider:
- What is your experience?
- What activities do the children do?
- What is my child going to learn?
- How will you track their development and goals?
- How can we create a plan together that meets my child’s needs?
- What happens if my child gets sick?
- Can I visit my child?
- What foods do you serve? Where is it prepared?
- What items do I need to provide for my child?
- Where are infants changed?
- How are babies placed to nap?
- What happens in the case of an emergency, including a fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster?
- If a problem comes up, how do we communicate?
- What form of payment do you accept? Do you accept families eligible for subsidized child care?
You’ll have other items on your checklist, too. For example: As children get older, Stewart said, they should be encouraged to pursue their own curiosities and interests.
“Does everyone’s art look the same as it did those on the wall?” Stewart said. “Children’s art should be open ended. And they should be able to create whatever it is they want.”
How important is accreditation?
You can look up a licensed child care center’s history, which includes state inspections, complaint investigations, and citations. California also maintains a database of caregivers who’ve passed background and fingerprint checks by the state’s Department of Justice and the FBI. The TrustLine Registry includes nannies and other un-licensed providers with no substantiated child abuse reports and certain criminal convictions including murder and kidnapping.
Outside of the minimum requirements to operate a child care center or care for kids, There are varying professional groups that accredit programs including the National Association for Family Child Care and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. These groups evaluate a provider’s standards, physical learning space, curriculum, and other aspects. But accreditation requires an investment of resources that may not be accessible to all providers providing quality care.
“There are so many quality programs that aren’t accredited,” Stewart said. “There are many that are, but for me [accreditation] wouldn’t be a deciding factor because it really depends on a center’s capacity to go through that process.”
Cast a wide net
Many of the parents we talked to said they looked to friends and family for child care recommendations.
“The more people you talk to, the more you’re going to learn,” Nigrelli said.
A provider that’s unable to provide your family care might be able to recommend another provider or other resources.
Your employer might offer help paying for or locating child care. NPR reported in 2022 that more companies are starting to offer additional support for working families, including back-up care and on-site centers.
Getting an education — and free child care?
There are hundreds of thousands of student parents in California colleges and some campuses offer free- or low-cost child care and other resources.
For example, LAist’s Brianna Lee found that L.A. Valley College has a dedicated Family Resource Center that not only offers child care but also parenting classes, one-on-one mentoring, counseling, and other supportive services. Many colleges call these Child Development Centers, and many may offer more extensive services than you’d expect.
“Ask a school what kinds of resources it has to support parents and families,” Lee writes in LAist’s college-going guide for parents and caregivers.
Review the contract
Many child care providers will ask parents and caregivers to provide information about their child, like an emergency contact and immunization history, and sign a contract before enrolling.
These agreements outline the facilities rules and regulations, i.e. what happens if your child is sick and what supplies you’re expected to provide.
Some home-based providers may close for vacations and holidays and parents may have to pay for alternate care.
“If there’s stuff you don’t understand, ask for clarification,” said Cole, from the Child Care Law Center.
Trust your instincts
San Gabriel Valley parent Osvaldo Colin remembers something felt off about the child care center where they enrolled their infant son. He said the family received conflicting information about who was in charge and believed at one point their son received another child’s infant formula.
“That kind of made us like, a little bit more anxious about dropping him off,” Colin said. “But we didn’t really have any options in terms of who could watch him.”
It wasn’t until a family member unexpectedly stopped working, that Colin pulled his son from the center. The family joined several child care waitlists and by the time their son turned two, they were able to enroll him in another center.
“The way they spoke about serving the community and offering services that help support neighborhood families— that was all something that we that that my wife and I really gravitated towards,” Colin said.
One of the things I like to remind parents is that you are the expert on your own child, on your own experience as a parent and it is not a one-size-fits-all.
— Jerri Stewart, Child Care Resource Center
If your first child care placement doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t be afraid to look for something new.
“One of the things I like to remind parents is that you are the expert on your own child, on your own experience as a parent,” Stewart, with the Child Care Resource Center said. “It is not a one-size-fits-all.”
When you do find a child care that fits, remember another important thing: Take the time to get to know the person caring for your child and develop a relationship.
Home-based providers and center directors are running a business on thin margins. Early educators don’t often make a lot of money. And everyone is trying to care for their own families at the end of the day.
Put on your armor
“Parents have to really decide that they have to be their child’s first advocate,” Cole said.
There are ways to get help with child care, but they’re not always easy to access and they can require a lot of paperwork.
“If the first person is not so nice to you, call the next person,” Cole said. “Next person not so nice? Call their supervisor.”
The process requires “putting on your armor,” Cole said.
It can be overwhelming, so that’s why Cole recommends building a network of support.
“Find someone who you can vent to, and then hit the pavement again,” Cole said. “Find another resource. Keep on digging until you find what you need to get by.”
Child care resources
MyChildCarePlan— A child care directory created by the state of California and local resource and referral agencies.
Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles— A partnership of 10 partner agencies that help Southern California families find child care and support providers.
Emergency child care for foster children— A statewide program intended to provide immediate child care access to families caring for children in foster care. Learn more about how to access the Emergency Child Care Bridge Program for Foster Children in Los Angeles.
A fill-in handout to take when you talk to providers and/or visit their facilities. The Child Care Resource Center defines the “keys to quality child care” as qualifications, cost, availability, learning, playing, health, safety, communication, COVID-19 precautions and caregiver/child interactions.
California child care facility search: Look up inspection reports and licensing history from the state Department of Social Services.
TrustLine Registry: A database of caregivers, including nannies and other un-licensed providers, who’ve passed background check that found with no substantiated child abuse reports or certain criminal convictions including murder and kidnapping.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): This group of educators has published guides for finding a high-quality child care program for your infant, toddler and older children.
California Department of Social Services guide to choosing child care: Answers to frequently asked questions and helpful checklist to take with you to child care facility visits.
For families of children with disabilities
Regional Centers— Community-based centers overseen by the state where families can get developmental disability assessments, case management support and learn about eligibility for therapeutic services.
These resources were recommended by the people interviewed for this guide. Have a suggestion? Email [email protected].
Early childhood engagement producer Stefanie Ritoper contributed to this guide. It was also informed by the Hey bb review committee: Early educator and consultant Tonia McMillian, advocate and California Early Childhood Policy Council member Yenni Rivera, and early childhood advocate Michele Sartell.
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