With onsite day care rare, working parents must weigh other options

NEW YORK — Onsite day care — it’s the serene ideal so many parents pine for.

The reality, of course, is that it’s often not available and stricter budgets are forcing moms and dads to scramble for new ways to manage child care costs.

For Jamie Lichtenstein, that means putting her 15-month-old son in a small day care run out of a nearby home. Two days a week costs $140. A traditional day care she looked into charged $2,000 a month for full-time care.

“Financially, it didn’t make sense. I would’ve used my whole paycheck,” said Lichtenstein, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health.

She also joined a local group in Cambridge, Mass. that swaps chores like child care, home repair and baking in lieu of payment. It’s an additional resource she uses on the evenings when she and her husband go out.

Such creative measures might be necessary in the hunt for cheaper child care. Other strategies to consider include requesting flex time at work and rallying a team of parents to rotate baby-sitting duties.

It might take some juggling, but the effort will be worthwhile given the steep price of child care.

Care alternatives

One alternative to traditional day care is family child care. These are small operations run out of homes by stay-at-home guardians looking to earn extra money.

The family child care home Lich­tenstein uses, for instance, only has two other children.

As with any outside care you employ, ask for references and what credentials or experience the provider has. Regardless of where you live, one way to assess a home is to bring your child along for a visit.

“You can tell a lot by that. If the provider is warm and nurturing, the children will just melt into her,” said Linda Geigle, executive director of the National Association for Family Child Care, an advocacy group based in Salt Lake City.

The YMCA also offers affordable child care at around 10,000 sites across the country. Costs vary depending on the region.

Company benefits

Flex time and telecommuting can help cut back considerably on child care expenses.

Couples might even be able to stagger shifts so someone is always home with the kids.

Before you approach your boss about a special work arrangement, however, consider the level of trust you’ve built. You might want to wait a few months to broach the topic if you’re still relatively new, said Steve Williams, director of research at the Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group based in Alexandra, Va.

Once you get the green light, don’t let your boss regret the decision.

“It goes both ways; you have to be flexible too so your schedule doesn’t cause a disruption to the organization,” Williams said.

Mobilize the village

When all else fails, enlist your network of family and friends.

There might be a retired grandparent or stay-at-home mom in your circle willing to watch the kids a couple days a week. Even if you pay a small fee, it will likely still be cheaper than a day care center.

“People are really starting to embrace this notion that it takes a village to raise a child,” Riss said. “Parents are calling on friends, family, neighbors and forming informal cooperatives.”

Think of it as a throwback to the days of yore, when the larger community played a central role in tending to the kids.

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