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Opinion | Finding child care: So many waitlists, so little time!

5 tips for finding a program in a post-pandemic desert.

When our daughter was born in 2017, Seattle seriously showed up.

From a CenteringPregnancy program at Swedish to a weekly parent peer-support group through Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS), to our infant cooperative preschool, we felt like the city had wrapped around us in a warm embrace.

Apparently, the key to melting ‘The Seattle Freeze” is to make babies. So if you’re a new parent, allow me to be the first to say, “Congratulations, you’ve arrived!”

Well … kind of. If you haven’t noticed yet, there is one thing that Washington state has yet to figure out for families, and it’s a big one: child care. Our family, like so many, were on countless waitlists, holding our breath until the waning hours of our parental leave. While we did manage to land a seat in the eleventh hour, we know that much of our state is considered a child care desert, and many families find themselves significantly challenged to find care in time and within their budget.

From working odd hours to bouncing between friends, neighbors, or nannies, families have long been patching their lives together to survive. But it’s not just a matter of keeping children safe while parents work. Research shows that quality early education has a remarkable impact on human development. Despite the demand, the care shortage is at an all-time high as we transition out of the pandemic.

As a professional in the field of early education and a mom who has been through my share of child care arrangements, I have picked up some tips for finding child care throughout the years. Having learned some the hard way, I’d love to share.

5 tips for finding child care

Faced with a shortage, parents often go into “fight mode” (get on a zillion waitlists) or “flight mode” (procrastinate and potentially pay the price). Personally, I went into full-on “fight mode” with my first and was once on twelve (yes, twelve) waitlists for infant care. I’m now expecting my second child, and I see a better way. A way that involves more intention and less panic.

Heads-up on these tips: while a nanny or nanny share arrangement can work out beautifully, it is not affordable for all families, and it’s generally easier to secure a nanny than a seat in an infant program, I’ve narrowed my focus. To that effect, here are five tips for finding center and home-based child care:

Talk the talk

If your family is looking for child care, let it be known. Spread the word to friends, neighbors, coworkers, on parenting groups, and with playground acquaintances even! Quality programs seek out parents who are partners in caring for and educating the child, and referrals can help them achieve this goal. The days of just dropping off your kids at child care like you’d drop off your car at the mechanic are passing. These are caring communities, and strong communities are built on human connection. Furthermore, spreading the word could lead to a nanny share arrangement with fellow parents, whether through word of mouth or social networking nanny share groups.

Find your fit

Taking the time to be intentional could land you a seat and save you time in the long run. How? Authenticity matters and your genuine interest can come across to those who manage admissions. As well, you’re more likely to stay with the program. As a colleague who ran admissions at her preschool remarked, “Parents think they’re interviewing us, but we’re also interviewing them.”

Fortunately, doing your research on early education philosophy is easier than it sounds. Are you looking for a “home away from home”? Seek out a family home child care. Do you value self-sufficiency? Check out Montessori. Is PEPS your jam? A cooperative school (often referred to as a co-op, it equates to early education plus parent education more than child care) is similar.

Pedagogy geeks like me love nothing more than talking and writing about these things, so take a little time to familiarize yourself, and be sure to tour. While finding a good fit for your child and family is essential, child care options can vary in cost and location. If your local options are more general — also known as play-based — worry not. Play is the work of children and is a legitimate philosophy in and of itself. All programs can be of quality, and it’s easy to get a list of what to look for.

Consider mixed-income programs

It’s interesting, but the adage “you get what you pay for” doesn’t necessarily apply in the child care industry. Our state, counties and cities have varying subsidy programs that assist at a growing range of income levels. Income eligibility will be expanding thanks to the Fair Start for Kids Act. Programs such as the mixed-income Seattle Preschool Program (SPP) can be exceptionally high quality; as recipients of public funds, they have more resources than many fully private programs.

For this reason – and also because of our family’s belief that mixed-income schools can create more robust, more diverse communities – our daughter is going into her second year of preschool in an SPP program. While not all programs accept subsidies (ugh!), Child Care Aware can help you find those that do.

If infant placement isn’t lining up, look toward the 12-month mark

The younger the child, the more expensive care is due to the low ratio requirements of state licensing, which require that there be 1 caregiver for every 4 infants in the room. Compare this to a college class, where the ratio in a lecture hall might be 1 professor to 200 students.

Even though the professor’s pay rate may be quadruple that of the early childhood educator, seat by seat, the infant class is still far more expensive to run. Therefore, many center-based programs have eliminated their infant programs as so few families can afford the actual cost of care. But don’t assume that you’re out of luck until preschool (age 3). Licensing ratios increase to 1 caregiver to 7 infants at 12 months of age, so the supply of care increases substantially for young toddlers, and it jumps again at preschool age (1:12). Consider getting on the waitlist for a program or two that starts at 12 months.

Be part of the child care solution

While I’m optimistic that a savvy parent can find a fit in the Seattle area, I’m not at all confident that all Washington families will. Our current shortage is real. There aren’t enough licensed seats for all. If you care about children and you care about the labor rights of women – especially women of color, who are overrepresented in the lowest-paying jobs in the field – then you have found your cause, my friend!

Legislators are tired of hearing from professionals. They want to hear from the folks on the ground. Parents of young children are hard to engage in the political process — we’re a busy lot, and it’s a temporary identity. When we do speak up, our voices carry weight. And it matters!

My family, for example, will get double the paid leave with our second child than our first, thanks to those who advocated for our state to become the fifth in the nation to offer Paid Family and Medical Leave in 2020. So please, share your struggles with your legislators. Consider reaching out to Child Care Aware and Moms Rising, two organizations that make it easy.

Last but not least, there is a mantra we live by in the co-op world: “You are your child’s first and most important teacher.” Regardless of where you find care, breathe easy knowing that YOU are showing up for your young child and that together we can call on our society to do the same.

Republished with permission from Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS). This piece was previously published on the PEPS blog on August 4, 2021.

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

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About the Author

Annie Garrett

Annie Garrett is an infant parent educator at South Seattle College and the manager of the Early Childhood Education Bachelor of Applied Science Degree at North Seattle College. She is a rather passionate fan of tiny humans and the not-so-tiny humans who support them. She also volunteers as a PEPS group leader.