Exploring the benefits and drawbacks of different types of child care can help you make an informed decision that works well for your family. Sometimes the terminology alone seems confusing. There are nursery schools vs preschools vs pre-k. In 35 states kindergarten is optional with 15 states requiring children attend as the stepping stone between early-childhood education and first grade but many of these early types of education are not standardized which leads to confusion as each tries to differentiate themselves. So how do you best prepare your children for school? You’re probably thinking about the pros and cons of each especially when it comes to cost and the impact on your child’s academic, social, and physical development.

If you decide to send your child to a school there are a number to choose from including teaching philosophy-based schools such as Montessori or Waldorf academies. Then there is the decision of just deciding between daycare vs staying home (home care) vs hiring a nanny vs having grandparents watch your children. There is definitely a lot to consider. We’ll start with the most common questions.

Child Care vs Daycare

Let’s start with the biggest question people have. What is the difference between daycare and child care? Actually, the term “child care” is broader and includes many types of care including family, friends, daycare, nursery schools, preschools, and specialty schools. All of these are considered child care by the IRS, if that helps.

A “daycare” typically refers to a center that is located out of the home. This can be confusing because many people use the term “in-home daycare“. In recent years the term “child care” has become more common because the care can be offered at any time and not just during the day and represents the larger scope of all early childhood education.

Nanny vs Au Pair

First, from a tax standpoint, both a nanny and an au pair are considered household employees by the IRS even though they are still accepted as being in the child care industry. One difference between them is that an au pair often comes from another country and is part of a cultural exchange. They learn the culture and language in exchange for helping with the homeowner’s children and in some cases light housework. Another difference is that nannies are also usually professionally trained and are a little older with more experience. An au pair is not professionally trained and are typically younger in age.

Daycare vs Preschool vs Nursery School

Education: Some have classified the difference by the level of education the teachers have but this is actually misguided. The caring for a child can come in many forms and technically preschools are a form of daycare center (a child is being cared for during the day). A child care worker will typically be required to have a high school diploma but it isn’t uncommon for many daycare centers to employ teachers with college degrees in Early Childhood Education or advanced certifications. This is especially true if the center has reached higher levels of accreditation by state and national child care associations, such as NAEYC.

Sometimes there is a perception that daycare teachers are just glorified babysitters which isn’t true at all. Most have years of experience and are highly qualified. That being said, designated Preschools will require higher levels of education, training, and experience. They will also usually have a more structured curriculum or teaching philosophy. This is where schools can diverge into active play-based curriculum, a more academic approach, environmental-learning, project-based learning, or a non-testing self-discovery philosophy.

Child Age: More appropriately, the distinction is related to the age of the child. Maybe this breakdown below will help.

  • Child Care: all forms of caring for a child
    • Age range: this is usually birth to 5 years old but when you include before/after school care it can include children much older who attend elementary, middle schools, or even high school.
    • Includes: Daycare, Family Care, Nannies, Au Pair, Before/After School Care, Friends/Neighbors, Preschools, Specialty Schools, Nurseries
  • Daycare: typically all forms of care outside of the home at a commercial center (not just a family member or neighbor).
    • Age range: birth to 5 years old
    • Includes: Preschools, Curriculum-based schools, Nursery Schools, Specialty Schools, Before/After School Care
  • Nursery Schools: mostly for infants and young toddlers
    • Age range: birth to 3
    • Many nursery schools still have highly qualified teachers though higher education isn’t always required.
  • Preschools: meant to be “pre” school age and is commonly interchangeable with Pre-K (meaning pre-kindergarten)
    • Age range: 3-4 (in some cases preschool is age 3 while pre-k is age 4 – the year before kindergarten)
  • Kindergarten: this is the first true “school” year for at least 15 states but still isn’t required in most states.
    • Age range: 5 years old
  • Specialty School: these are usually private and can very by curriculum and philosophy. One of the most common is Montessori but there are many others.
    • Age range: varies. Montessori is most commonly attended between the ages of 3-5 before kindergarten but there are some programs before the age of 3 and some cases where Montessori schools are offered up through high-school.

OK, now that we have the terminology covered let’s talk about the other big question. Daycare vs nanny vs stay at home mom or dad?

Daycare Centers

Daycare centers have a lot to offer both children and parents. Depending on where you live and the quality of care you choose, child care centers can be less expensive than hiring a nanny. Whether you have a baby or toddler who needs care, a quality child care center can provide a positive, loving environment that benefits your child.

  • Child care helps build social skills: The socialization children get in child care centers helps them learn how to effectively solve problems, resolve conflict, share, and cultivate friendships with peers.
  • Play and educational resources are readily available: Child care centers offer all types of toys, books, games, and play equipment. At most centers, creative play is encouraged and there’s a large supply of art supplies, costumes for dress-up, educational games, blocks, and toys. Musical instruments, singing, playtime, outdoor time, and circle time give kids a chance to joyfully express themselves. Many child care centers introduce children to science, numbers, letters, words, and colors, which can better prepare them for kindergarten.
  • Centers are regulated, licensed, and/or accredited: Child care centers are required to follow state regulations that include safety and sanitation standards, staff-to-child ratios, first aid and CPR training, and other vital elements that ensure children are being taken care of in a safe environment.
  • Professional infant caregivers and early childhood educators teach: Whether they possess practical experience or a degree in education, most people who work in childcare do it because they love children and want to watch them thrive. Child care centers give children an opportunity to develop relationships with adults outside their families. Many children see their caregivers as adults they can look to for support, love, and guidance.
  • The cost may be more affordable: Sending your child to a child care center tends to be more affordable than a nanny. Keep in mind, though, costs vary widely based on location and type of facility. In-home child care centers tend to be less expensive than a traditional child care center or nanny.

While many of these facilities provide quality care and stimulation for children, they’re not for everyone. Children might pick up germs and have accidents more frequently in child care centers than they would at home. If you work odd hours, it can be tough to find a center with hours that fit your schedule. It’s also important to consider your child’s personality and how he or she may handle the transitions and stimulation that going to a child care center involves.


Having a nanny care for your child at home gives you more flexibility, convenience, and control over the way you raise your child. A good nanny will make sure your child eats well, gets plenty of attention, affection, and physical and intellectual stimulation. He or she may even do light housework such as cooking and laundry. Many nannies stay with their families for years and become part of the family.

If you hire a nanny, it’s best to have the person fully vetted with background checks and child clearances before trusting them with your children. It’s also important that your nanny respects your parenting style and your wishes. If he or she gets sick, you most likely won’t have coverage and will need to miss work. On average, nannies usually cost more than child care centers. Having a nanny also means you are an employer and should pay taxes on your nanny’s salary.

Here is a little more information on how much a nanny might cost.

Staying Home

Being a stay-at-home parent has its own unique advantages and drawbacks. Of course, you get to spend more time with your children and be closely connected and involved in their development. You determine their schedule, the food they eat and the values you want to impart. You’re also responsible for their safety and intellectual and emotional development, which can be daunting.

However, you’ll get to experience more “firsts” like talking and walking. Staying home also cuts the cost of having to pay for childcare, which may be more financially beneficial to your family than bringing home a salary.

There are a few cons to consider. You may miss working, interacting daily with people outside your family, or having the intellectual stimulation that comes with work. Depending on how long you stay home with your kids, you may have a significant employment gap on your resume. Make sure to take time for yourself to relax and recharge every day, even it’s only for a few minutes.

Stay-at-home parents also need to make sure that they are covering the key developmental areas that will prepare their child for success in school. This would include fine-motor development, speech, and all of the academic foundations they will need for the future. Additionally, making sure to set up play-dates for emotional and social development will be important, especially as the child enters school age with more structured routines and authority figures other than the parents. It is actually common for a parent to stay home for the first 2-3 years until the child reaches preschool age before returning to work either full-time or part-time.

Regardless of which option you choose, considering your child’s needs and providing a safe and loving environment will help your child flourish in any care situation.

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