When Teresa Cirrincione and her husband Matt shared the news that they were expecting their first child, the response from their close friends was a little surprising. After a congratulatory hug, the group immediately advised, “Start looking for daycare now. Like, today!”
They laughed, but heeded the advice anyway, and quickly encountered the extreme obstacle course of finding quality childcare in Colorado.
“Now I’m glad I listened to them,” says Cirrincione. “It’s almost impossible to find an opening, let alone a good fit. I have another friend who waited until after her baby was born and she ended up with very few, very unappealing options.”
Colorado only has enough licensed childcare spots for about 45 percent of kids, birth to age six with working parents, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Luckily, help is available, and many Colorado families have found childcare arrangements that work for them—it’s just not always the way they envisioned it. Use this article to explore your options, educate yourself, and find a great fit for your family.
Colorado ranked as the fifth least-affordable state for center-based (nonresidential) childcare in 2014, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Not only are most centers at capacity with long waiting lists, but the median center-based childcare cost of $800-$1400 monthly for a single infant, and slightly less for a toddler, is tough for many families. Plus, most centers require non-refundable fees of $50-$100 just for getting on their waitlist.
The Cirrincione family landed a spot in a center they trust by reserving a spot before they actually needed it. “We got a glowing recommendation for a center from one of our friends and got Maggie on the waiting list there before we even knew her gender, name, or birthdate!” Cirrincione says. “The cost is a huge hit to our budget, even though it’s on the lower end for daycare, but we just have no choice because we don’t have family in Denver. We actually feel lucky to have found an opening at all at a good location.”
If you have an older toddler and qualify, Head Start is a no-cost, comprehensive preschool program for children ages three to five. You must apply and register at your local Head Start program.
In-home daycares are generally less expensive than centers and care for fewer children. Homes must be licensed in order to care for five or more children, with no more than two children under age two. A home setting can provide a more comfortable transition for babies, and a more convenient and flexible arrangement for parents.
Keep in mind, though, that while most in-home daycares are licensed and therefore required to comply with state guidelines, they tend to be held to somewhat looser standards and are easier for inspectors to overlook. While experts recommend four inspections annually, an April 2016 Denver Post article reported that Colorado has had some of the weakest inspection standards in the country, often allowing homes and centers to go up to three years without a single inspection.
Jennesa and Art Yanez can attest to the inconsistencies, as they have tried five different daycare arrangements for two-year-old Arturo. “I waited too long and I had no idea how difficult and expensive childcare would be, but we found the most wonderful woman in our neighborhood,” says Jennesa Yanez. “She cared for just three boys, a lovely home, a really nurturing program with outings and healthy snacks and really everything you want.”
However, when the provider found out she was pregnant, she decided to discontinue in-home care, after Arturo had only been enrolled a few months. What followed was a daycare rollercoaster. The second enrollment ended after only a few days, with an upsetting confrontation and a call to social services. Their third in-home provider had inconsistent hours, and eventually ejected Arturo in order to make space for the provider’s nephew. Next, they tried an arrangement with a friend, but it was too far away. This was followed by a private, fairly affordable center, but due to conflicts with the director over Arturo’s diet restrictions and some alarming reports from another parent, they decided to pull Arturo from the center. Now, Arturo is currently with an in-home, drop-in-only provider until they can find another placement.
“All these people are licensed and had good reviews,” says Yanez. “Honestly, I love in-home daycare. When it’s good, it’s ideal—but you absolutely have to do your homework and keep trying for the right fit.”
Nannies, Au Pairs, and Swaps
If you, like the Yanez family, are still searching for that fit, consider a nanny, an au pair, a childcare swap, or just a friend or family member that you trust. A nanny will come to your home, allowing consistency for the child, flexibility for the parents, and a more involved relationship with the family. While rates average $10-$25 an hour, “nanny-sharing” with one or more families can make this an affordable possibility.
With an au pair—meaning, “equal to”—the caregiver is considered a member of the family and not just hired help. When hosting an au pair from another country, the host family provides room and board as well as a stipend based on minimum wage, in exchange for a set number of childcare hours. There are some additional costs such as agency fees. Families can find au pairs through approved agencies that are regulated by the U.S. Department of State.
For those families who don’t need full-time care, a childcare swap might be the way to go. This involves two or more families alternating days to watch each other’s children in addition to their own. These arrangements are free, but make sure to establish clear communication with all families involved about expectations, availability, and reciprocity.
Melinda Sue Coburn provides in-home infant care for one child during the day and for a number of alternating school-age children as after-care. She’s never considered going bigger or becoming licensed because she has two young children of her own. She wants to maintain a high level of care while avoiding the paperwork.
“I know my limits. I care for one additional child at a time. I want this as a social opportunity for my girls and I want this to seem like home to any child in my care,” says Coburn. “I only deal with friends and close referrals because a good relationship is essential. I’m definitely not in it as a business. I just love kids and I want to be home with my girls.”
Though Coburn never advertises, she gets a couple inquiries a month. A number of families in her area provide similar in-home care, and they share requests to find openings. You will not find these families through an internet search, but check your neighborhood Hub newspaper or sign up for the Nextdoor app to see if there is such a network near you.
Online Childcare Help
Online tools and resources are essential and plentiful in navigating your search. Cirrincione found that coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com had nearly everything she needed. This site lets you search for care, filtering results by your address, the age of your child, and the type of care you want. It then allows you to view the provider’s history, including reviews, ratings, and any complaints. From there you can directly access the individual websites of the providers that interest you to find out about caregiver qualifications, structure, policies, and availability.
Yanez used a similar site that focused on her area, childcareinadamsco.org. “I learned that rather than contacting all the individual daycares to find openings, I could just email the director with my request and she sent it out to her list of providers. So much easier!” Yanez says.
Colorado Shines?, a system that monitors and supports early learning programs, helps parents find licensed childcare facilities via a search function on their website. The site offers updated, thorough information on providers, along with a quality rating system.
In addition, the Colorado Children’s Campaign provides information on research, updated licensing regulations, and current Colorado legislation.
Expect High Standards
The good news about the comparatively loose inspections standards in Colorado is that new childcare regulations took effect September of 2016 (read them here: coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/rulesandregulations). Since this time, the Colorado Department of Human Services conducts at least one unannounced licensing inspection for all licensed childcare facilities annually. Ask potential childcare providers about previous state and medical inspections, and whether there were any violations during the most recent inspection. Familiarize yourself with the rules. Parents have a keener eye and are more attentive to infractions than even a trained inspector.
After enrolling her daughter Maggie, Cirrincione would still occasionally drop-by and spy, asking a question or leaving paperwork. She looked for cleanliness, teacher/child ratios, whether adults were engaged with the children, and whether children seemed happy.
A good daycare will encourage parents to be as involved as possible with their child’s care. Are you welcome to drop in any time? Do you have access to any area of the center, including vehicles? Do you feel like your questions, concerns, and suggestions are always welcome and heard
“Don’t let things slide,” says April Summers, lead teacher at Victory Montessori daycare, where she also takes her own children. “Caregivers are busy, especially at drop off and pick-up times, so you have to take the initiative as a parent to ask questions and communicate.”
Summers advises that parents of children ages six months to three years should expect to receive a detailed daily report of meals, naps, diapers or potty-chair, activities, and general demeanor along with any concerns or celebrations.
Some modern facilities have webcams allowing you to actually observe your child during the day. While this feature offers peace-of-mind, it’s not as important as doing your research, trusting your gut, and forming a real relationship with your child’s caregiver. “Personally I feel like having a positive relationships and a level of trust is more important than extra technology, or even a nicer facility with more amenities or programs,” says Cirrincione. “It’s the caregivers that matter most. You have to get to know them.”
As educators themselves, Cirrincione and Summers both understand the importance of early developmental experiences. It’s not just about having someone to change diapers and assure naps. During a child’s first years, more than 700 neural connections are being formed every second, setting the stage for working memory, language development, and self-control. Quality early care should improve long-term physical, emotional, and academic outcomes, so parents are wise to not ‘settle.” Persevere until you find an arrangement that works for both you and your child.
“Sometimes the process of searching and then monitoring and checking in feels like a job all by itself,” says Yanez. “But it’s parenting. It is a job.”
Kristi Hemingway is an Arvada-based writer, educational consultant, artist, mom, and kitchen dancer.
Resources To Help With Childcare Research
Child Care Aware – Find fact sheets, inspection reports, background checks, regulations, and quality ratings. childcareaware.org/state/colorado
Colorado Children’s Campaign – Read about research, updated licensing regulations, and current Colorado legislation.
Colorado Office of Early Childhood – Search for childcare, filter results by location, age of child, and type of care, and view provider histories, including reviews, ratings, and any complaints.
Colorado Shines – Search for licensed childcare, filtering for location, age level, and quality ratings. Tools are available in both English and Spanish. The quality rating system is provided as a free service to all licensed childcare programs serving children ages birth to five years old.
Head Start – Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for locations and information about local Head Start programs.
For Local Referrals:
Adams County Association of Family Child Care
Arapahoe County Family Child Care Association
Broomfield Child Care Association
Caregiver Network (Aurora)
Douglas County Child Care Association
Jefferson County Child Care Association