Preschool Matters Today

My Search for the Holy Grail: High Quality Infant Care: Part II


November 22, 2019
Allison H. Friedman-Krauss

Part II: What can be done to improve access to high-quality infant-toddler care?

In Part I, I described my journey looking for child care for my infant son. From responses, I learned my search was more positive and less frustrating than many others, although still stressful at times. We were lucky to find convenient infant care when we needed it; a center where our son received and continues to receive high quality care, highlighted by positive, stimulating interactions with caregivers that genuinely care about him. Even after long days the staff are engaged with the children, supportive, and positive. From research I know our experiences are the exception rather than the norm. I often find myself smiling when walking through the center during drop-off/pick-up.

Last week I asked the question: What can be done to improve access to affordable, high-quality, convenient child care for infants and toddlers? There are no easy answers. Done right, care for infants and toddlers is expensive. There’s really no way around it. Infants and toddlers have different needs than preschool-age children and need more attention and help. Ratios must be lower and staff are expensive. In New Jersey, child care licensing requires 1 staff for every 4 children under 18 months.

Staff are a large driver of costs as licensed centers need three times more staff for infants than for preschool-age children (licensing requires 1 staff per 12 4-year-olds). Higher costs are passed on to parents but for some centers, infant and toddler care might be a money loser. Some centers find ways to subsidize care. Others decide not to offer infant and/or toddler care – it’s not worth it financially to them, contributing to the problem of access and availability.

In New Jersey, the average price of center-based infant care is $15,600. If we paid staff what they should be paid, the cost would be much higher. So, how can infant and toddler care be more affordable? Without compromising quality and increasing ratios, I don’t think it can be. That is, I don’t think the cost of a child care center that provides high-quality infant and toddler care can get any lower.

Costs could be reduced by increasing the number of children per caregiver, but that’s not good for children (or staff!). Taking care of 1 infant is hard enough, but infant caregivers in NJ are tasked with caring for up to four infants at a time. Arguably, we should be moving the other direction toward 1:3 (or better) to better support children’s development. That would increase cost.

And centers can’t pay teachers less. Child care providers are already some of the lowest paid workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a child care provider is $22,190. This is only slightly higher in NJ: $23,930 (despite the high cost of living). In comparison, public school teachers in NJ earn, on average, $69,900 and have summers off. Early Head Start teachers in NJ earned a much lower $26,000 on average. Child care providers should be paid more, not less. They should also earn benefits like health insurance, retirement, sick days, vacation, and paid time for professional development. All this makes infant and toddler care more, not less, expensive. Yet, the quality and well-being of child care staff is critically important for infants and toddlers.

This brings me back once again to the question, what can be done to make infant and toddler child care more affordable? New Jersey recently raised the reimbursement rates for child care subsidies. This is a step in the right direction, though it only affects a small percent of families. Expanding eligibility for and availability of subsidies for infant and toddler care also would help.

We could add to this expanding Early Head Start, which currently reaches only 1% of infants and toddlers. Early Head Start may provide the highest quality infant and toddler child care we have currently, though research suggests it may not be as good as needed. We could use more research on what high quality care for infants and toddler should look like to inform Early Head Start and other child care programs and policies.

At the national level, the 2020 election might be an opportunity to address this issue. But so far, the issue has been largely ignored in the Democratic candidate debates and it’s hard to find anything about child care on most candidate’s websites. Some candidates have put forth plans to make child care more affordable; Elizabeth Warren’s plan has garnered the most attention, calling for free child care for families earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level and no more that 7% of family income for everyone else.

Clearly, solving the problem of access to affordable high-quality infant and child care won’t be easy. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), with the generous support of the Nicholson Foundation, is working on plans to develop an Infant Toddler Center at NIEER to study key infant toddler child care issues in New Jersey. As we move forward with these plans, we will tackle the issues discussed here (and others) in efforts to move the policy agenda forward in the state and hopefully increase access to affordable, high quality infant and toddler child care in New Jersey.

Read Part I