The choice of where to send your children while you work is one of the most daunting choices you will ever make. After a baby is born, your life turns upside down. You’re low on sleep, high on stress, and are suddenly responsible for a tiny, vulnerable person you just met. And amid all of it, you may have to return to work. Just when you’re learning how to keep your baby safe, fed, and happy, you suddenly hand off that responsibility to someone else.
That transition is made infinitely harder by one distressing fact - there is not enough licensed infant and toddler care available in the United States. Limited access to licensed care puts parents in a difficult spot. They are forced to choose between what they can afford, what is available during the time they need it, what they can easily get to, and what they consider the safest, most caring, most enriching place for their child.
Using our new story maps, Child Care Aware® of America found that licensed infant and toddler care is not an option for many families. In Hawaii, just 11 percent of infants and toddlers have access to licensed care. In rural Mohave County, AZ there are only enough licensed child care slots for seven percent of the county’s youngest residents. Without access to licensed options, many of those families turn to relatives, friends, neighbors, or other unlicensed care providers.
While having a license does not guarantee high quality, it does show that the child care provider is willing to be inspected and supervised periodically to protect children’s health and safety. Also, licensed providers can access professional development and training opportunities to help them improve their program’s quality. Unlicensed providers are less likely to be inspected for health and safety, and they may not be connected to training, resources, or support.
The quality of care that infants and toddler receive can affect their lifelong health. They need safe indoor and outdoor spaces where they can explore. They need caregivers who are trained to keep them safe while they sleep and play. They need nourishing foods to help their brains and bodies grow. They need to be read to, played with, and challenged every day. Early care and education programs can sow the seeds for lifelong success, and chip away at the health disparities entrenched in our society. Young children who receive high quality care build the physical, social, and cognitive skills they need for a lifetime of health. Those who miss out may spend a lifetime playing catch-up.
So what can we do to make sure that all children get the start that they need?
- Improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers, wherever they are getting it. That means making sure that all caregivers, even those who aren't licensed, have access to training and resources that will help them meet those children’s needs.
- Support more providers to become licensed to serve infants and toddlers. This starts by giving providers an incentive to serve infants and toddlers, along with the specialized training and assistance necessary to provide quality care to the youngest children.
- Make sure that state licensing standards are high enough to ensure that all infants and toddlers are getting the safe, healthy, nurturing care that they need.
Want to learn more about ensuring standards for early child care environments? Click here to visit our toolkit and to sign up for the Voices for Healthy Kids Action Team!