It can be really hard to get into daycare

The title of this post isn’t a news flash to any American parent who needs childcare, but it is something that I think can catch non-parents and people expecting their first child off guard. The particular timing of this post was triggered by reading the following in The Bump’s pregnancy app entry for someone at 29 weeks gestation (bold is mine):

Week 29 is a good time to start finalizing stuff, like stocking the nursery with baby care essentials and checking out a few potential daycares.*

This made me laugh. 29 weeks is a good time to start checking out a few potential daycares? This does not match at all with my experiences or those of people I know. In the US, due to really poor parental leave policies, it is common for women to take only 6 weeks to a few months off from work after giving birth.** Dads often take less time off from work (sometimes just a few days). In my experience, these numbers apply to faculty, too, though the situation can be much worse for adjunct faculty. This means that many families where both parents work end up needing childcare for their children while they are still very young. Because the ratio of care providers to children scales with age, with babies needing the most intensive care, finding childcare for a baby anywhere from 6 weeks through 1 year is especially hard.

When I was pregnant with my first, I waited until late in my first trimester to put myself on lists. We knew it would be hard to get in, but I didn’t feel comfortable going on tours of the facilities (and some of them required tours to go on the wait list) while in my first trimester, especially since we generally knew several families at the daycares we were considering. We put ourselves on the wait lists at four daycares. One of them was the Georgia Tech daycare. Another was very close to campus, but not affiliated with Georgia Tech. That daycare told me that the more I called, the more likely I was to get in.*** In the end, we got into that daycare (see footnote for more explanation). We never got into the Georgia Tech one, even though my husband and I both were affiliated with the university. We moved when our daughter was about 1.5 year. A colleague had told me his son didn’t get in until he was 3, so that wasn’t totally surprising.

At the University of Michigan, there are three daycares. One is adjacent to Central Campus, one is on North Campus, and one is affiliated with the Med School. Our children go to the daycare near Central Campus. We love the daycare and the teachers, and are really happy that our children go there. But it’s very lucky that they do – if we hadn’t moved with a toddler (who got the last available spot in a toddler room at the facility), we wouldn’t have been able to get our son in when he was born.**** This daycare – which, again, is one of only three for a very, very large university – has only nine spots in the infant room. Nine. That means that, as far as I know, the spots in the infant room almost always (or maybe always) go to younger siblings of children who are already there. Even with the boost of having an older sibling there, it’s not guaranteed that a baby will be able to get in. So, for this pregnancy, the person who manages the daycare list was the third person to know I was pregnant. When people I know are expecting their first child and ask me about daycare, I tell them that I love the UMich daycare, but that they probably won’t be able to get a spot there in the infant room, and that they should put themselves on lists elsewhere, too. And that they should do that right away.

I realize that my family is incredibly fortunate to have access to high quality, conveniently located daycare, and to be able to afford that daycare.***** The issue of how limited infant daycare spots are relates to much larger systemic issues in the US: the very limited parental leave that most parents are afforded, and the lack of societal support for daycare (and, more generally, care for others, including eldercare). I feel both like I pay a jaw-dropping amount for daycare, and like the daycare teachers are paid nowhere near what they should be. Those economic factors play a key role in the lack of infant daycare spots: they are very, very expensive for a daycare to run. (As I said above, the caregiver:child ratio required for infants makes them the most expensive for a daycare.) All of which is to say: unfortunately, I don’t have any ideas for an easy fix to the problem. But, based on my experience, finding quality daycare in the US takes a lot of time. Would it be possible to find daycare for an infant on short notice? Yes, and I know people who’ve done this (e.g., because of a major problem with their previous daycare). But that’s a really stressful way to do it, and most people I know have needed much longer to work out a daycare spot for an infant. So, if I created a pregnancy app******, it would say to start looking some time during the first trimester.

* Other thoughts related to this quote and pregnancy apps in general: 1) I am nowhere near stocking a nursery with baby care essentials. Such is life for baby #3. 2) I love this McSweeney’s post that pokes fun at how these apps and websites always compare a baby’s size to produce.

** When I was pregnant with my first, a well-meaning colleague told me that I needed to get back to work within a few days (5, to be specific). She pointed out that it wouldn’t be good for my body, but it’s just what needs to happen. Fortunately, this advice seemed so wrong to me that it was easy for me to ignore. Even if I had wanted to follow it, it would not have been physically possible for me to do so – I was in the hospital for 5 days for that birth.

*** This seems to suggest that these lists are more fluid than I would have expected. And, even with calling regularly, I learned that a colleague who had gotten on the list after me (I knew she’d gotten on it after me because I was the one who told her about the daycare), with a due date within a week of mine, had heard her child had been given a spot but mine hadn’t. I called them and pointed that out, and suddenly it went from there not having been any space available to us having a spot. Based on this experience, I called quite frequently when we were on waitlists in Michigan.

**** I’ve had people tell me that they heard we got into the UMich daycare because I negotiated it as part of my hiring. That’s not true. It never even occurred to me to ask, even though finding daycare was a major concern of mine related to the move.

***** There are subsidies available for students who have children in daycare.

****** Now that I’ve typed this, I think maybe I should create a pregnancy app. Instead of produce, I could compare the developing baby to the size of different animals. “This week, your baby is the size of a Daphnia magna!” I’m sure it would be very popular.

15 thoughts on “It can be really hard to get into daycare

  1. We got on the list at my university’s daycare facility (which from what I hear is both expensive and terrific) shortly after we got pregnant. IIRC (and I may not, it’s been a while), we were not offered a spot until our son was 18 months old. Which we declined as we had other arrangements at that point, but we remained on the waiting list. We weren’t offered a spot again for another couple of years (?), at which point we’d long since given up.

    Against that, I have colleagues in my dept. who got spots.

    When we signed up, we were given an entire single-spaced page in tiny type with the complicated, rigid prioritization rules. We took them at their word, and didn’t bother calling periodically to see if spots were open. Maybe we should’ve, but honestly I’ve no idea if it would’ve made any difference.

    I think my university is unusual in that students, not faculty or staff, have priority at the main campus facility (the university now has a second facility nearby, which I think may have different priority rules?)

  2. In the spirit of the McSweeney’s link:

    “This week your baby is the size of a Daphnia magna. Not a neonate, or an individual with a helmet, or anything like that. A normal Daphnia magna, all of which are exactly the same size.”


      • I wish I could say that was part of the joke–your baby is perfectly normal, just like a normal, helmet-free Daphnia magna, which are all normal and helmet-free. But the truth is I can never remember which Daphnia spp. have inducible defenses. 🙂

  3. Having needed daycare at two universities in Canada, I second the suggestion to get on the list ASAP – the waitlists are in numbers of YEARS (we had baby #2 as ‘Baby X’ on a waitlist while she was probably still Daphnia-sized). There was no priority or accommodations for new faculty to get into the campus daycare (or negotiations for that matter). There was a students’-kids-only daycare at one of the institutions we were at, but the other (that we actually go into) was mixed faculty/staff/students.
    As a graduate student, the cost of daycare for a 6-12 month baby (~$1600 CAD per month in Toronto) was more than my monthly stipend, but we managed to get a subsidy from the city to make it affordable. The biggest issue was getting some sort of pay during my 4-month leave, since being on scholarship I wasn’t eligible for employment insurance and the scholarship didn’t offer maternity pay at the time (I think this has changed now). I ended up getting 1 semester of maternity leave and pay after an amazing grad admin assistant pulled some strings. Thankfully baby arrived close to the beginning of the semester! Overall there did not seem to be a lot of precedent for the accommodations we needed, either as grad students or early-career researchers. I’m pretty sure we were not the first ones to have kids in either place but it certainly seemed like it!

    RE-produce sizing fetuses – We also found this hilarious and odd. No child is ever really banana-sized, I hope. I think one week I even had a baby the size of ‘a bunch of leeks’. Really?
    I always thought in terms of birds – 10g = chickadee sized, 35g = Catharus thrush, 150 g = American Robin…etc.

  4. Great post! I liked the **** about negotiating daycare spots as part of ones hiring package. I negotiated for my job with a then 6-week old, and tried really really hard to negotiate a daycare spot as part of my package. I was pretty much laughed at all the way up. In the end, we never could find an infant spot, and my husband stayed home with our baby until he was one. Even then, I never got in to the university daycare. Eventually I got a call from them to say they had a spot when he was over two, but we never switched. My point is that its one thing to plan while you’re pregnant for daycare, but for academics with little ones who are moving between post-docs/faculty positions, these are real challenges!

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head. The awfulness of moving and the awfulness of finding good childcare combined create a huge problem in academia. I would go as far as to say this is The Big Problem with retaining women in science between graduate school and faculty appointments. Not all of us have a partner who is able (or willing) to stay home with the baby…

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  6. I agree with everything written. Some additional points (which only pertain to the U.S.):
    * University daycares are exceptionally hard to get into. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I was on the U of Minnesota waiting list since before my first kid was conceived. When he was about 2 (that’s about 3 years on the waiting list), they offered him a spot. We had moved to Texas since then, so I just laughed when they offered the spot. *However* a friend of mine (also a grad student) DID get her baby (born about 9 months after mine) into the same center. There’s a bunch of random luck about when spots will become available.
    * You will probably assume your daycare providers are treated much better than they actually are (if you’re at a for-profit center). Get to know them, and understand how terrible the system is in the U.S.
    * Corollary: not-for-profit daycares (including university ones) treat their caregivers better than most. But they are few and far between.
    * Institutional daycare centers are *not* the only option! There are in-home caregivers (nannies, au pairs), including things like nanny shares, and home-based daycare centers, too.
    * Meg, I would quibble a little with the implication that most women take 6 weeks off. Many, many have to go back to work after 2 or 3 weeks for financial reasons. It’s heartbreaking and immoral, but that’s what our country does to people. (I have a heart-wreching memory of encountering a new mom sobbing in the daycare parking lot. She was dropping her 3-week-old off because she had to go back to work.) More than 1/3 of new moms don’t have any federal or state protections (including most postdocs).
    * The standard infant:caregiver ratio is 4:1. That’s right: 4 tiny helpless babies and one (albeit trained) adult taking care of them. Sometimes you will see 3:1, but rarely. Consider if you *really* want your infant in this situation. There are other options (see above).
    * Numbers! Not only is good daycare hard to find, it’s damned expensive. For the “infant” room (age 6 weeks to 1 year at most centers) at a top-tier daycare center (NAEYC certified), expect to pay: $15,000-$20,000 per year in the middle of the country and $25,000-$35,000 per year in the big coastal cities. (I’ve gone daycare shopping in Minneapolis, Austin TX, D.C., and Boston.)
    Nannies cost $12-$20/hr depending on where you live and who you hire (expect to pay more for those with more experience.) An au pair costs ~$20,000 per year plus the exclusive use of a bedroom in your home. Home-based daycare centers can cost $8,000-$15,000 per year for an infant, but I don’t have a lot of experience looking at these — this is just what I’ve heard from friends.
    * Corollary: the subsidies some universities provide for childcare are nice, as is the childcare FSA, but they just put a small dent in the cost — they’re not going to be a game-changer.
    * Don’t just look at daycare centers early in pregnancy, figure out a childcare game plan (which can have a mixture of childcare strategies) and figure out how you’re going to pay for it all early in pregnancy.

  7. Life is hard on the other side of the ocean! Places for very young children are scarce in Europe as well, so searching for one early is crucial. I am really glad that we don’t have to put a-few-weeks-old newborns to childcare. That’s just unimaginable…

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