Care and Feeding

Choosing Wisely

Should I settle for a less expensive day care center?

A mother kisses her young daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by digitalskillet/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our first child this summer. We both work 9 to 5 and are looking to send our baby to day care for three days a week. (Our mothers will generously babysit the other days.) This winter we visited Day Care A, an established local day care center that comes highly recommended by both family and friends who have children there. We liked what we saw and put down a deposit.

Unfortunately, we just found out Day Care A will significantly increase its tuition costs this summer. While I feel that we can comfortably afford the price increase, my husband does not. He feels like the day care pulled a bait and switch and is upset about paying so much more for the same level of service.

This week we visited Day Care B, a national day care chain, and it seemed … fine. The staff appeared friendly and competent, the facility was clean, and the babies seemed happy and cared for. But I just didn’t walk away with the same warm and fuzzy feeling as with Day Care A. We also don’t personally know anyone who has used Day Care B.

Since we intend to move our child to a completely different place once they are 18 months old (due to more options being available at that age), our dilemma is just which day care to pick for that short amount of time. My husband wants to do Day Care B. He thinks that both centers are good options and the several-thousand-dollar cost difference with Day Care A isn’t worth it since the experience for an infant won’t actually be much different. I’m leaning toward Day Care A because of the personal experiences of our family and friends, which gives me extra peace of mind for the level of care our baby will receive. We both will continue working full time and do not want to use a nanny. We’re at an impasse—what do you think?

—How Good Is “Good Enough”?

Dear HGIGE,

I tend to lean toward your husband’s point of view here and here’s why: Things can be good for your baby even if they don’t give you the warm fuzzy feelings inside. Think of all those parents for whom Day Care B is, in fact, a luxury. Would you suggest that it’s a problem that their kids go there? Or that their kid will somehow suffer in some way because Day Care B was all they could afford?

Day cares are branded businesses, and like all branded businesses, marketing is just as important as product. As you’re finding out, a rise in cost does not necessarily have a direct correlation to a rise in quality. It is possible that what you are paying for with those extra thousands is all the stuff that makes you, the parent, feel like your kid is in a warm and fuzzy and protected bubble, safe and loved—and not actually more safety or more care and love. Without knowing these two places specifically, I cannot say whether this is true, but I encourage you to think more critically about how you’re being marketed to.

Can you point to specific things, other than aesthetics, that you feel are demonstrably better in A than in B? How is your communication with the staff in both places? Since babies can’t talk, it’s important that you and your caregiver can talk easily! Do both facilities have older kids? If so, how are choking hazards kept away from infants? What are their philosophies for dealing with fussy babies? What are their sick child policies? These are questions that your letter doesn’t address but that are vital toward making a decision.

Vibe is important but it’s not the whole picture, and oftentimes places where you’re going to send your kid are really good at leveraging your fear and your desire to give your child the best against you in order to make you turn over the contents of your wallet. I’m not saying that’s what happening here, but it’s a possibility, and you should probably take your feelings as one piece of information, not an entire basis of fact.

If after all that you still feel that you just can’t be comfortable unless you are at Day Care A, well, it’s your money and if you have it, spend it. Whether you’re spending it for better care or just better feelings is something only you can know.

—Carvell