What is the best age to start child care?

Published on Monday, 05 December 2016
Last updated on Thursday, 16 December 2021

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Parents thinking about child care will be well aware of all the decisions that need to be made along the way. Thinking about the best time to start in a child care service is an important part in the decision making process.

Some people say that family care is best for babies, and child care centres are best for toddlers. Other people say that home based care is the ideal compromise between family care and centres and is suitable for children of all ages. Like all choices you make about child care, your decision concerning timing should depend on your unique circumstances and the needs of your child.

To help you make the right decision concerning the timing of child care for your family keep the following points in mind:

Babies - 0 to 18 months

Babies thrive in situations where they have a lot of one-on-one attention from a single caregiver and home-based care is great at this stage. However, child care centres can work well if there are a small number of babies per carer allowing the carer to respond quickly to their needs.

Continuity of care is the most important aspect at this stage. Babies need time to develop an attachment to and trust in their carer. Babies also need a clean and safe environment as they start to explore the world around them.

Toddler - 18 months to 3 years

Babies and young toddlers have similar needs when it comes to child care. Toddlers respond well to low carer to child ratios and require carers with lots of patience and energy. This is when children begin to test their limits and they need carers who can help them understand the parameters of the world they live in.

Toddlers are extremely active and need a safe environment that allows them to explore, while limiting the potential for bumps and bruises. Home based care, such as nannies and au pairs are excellent for children at this age. Child care centres and home based care with low carer to child ratios and good staff retention can work well too.

Another benefit of centre and home based care for children at this age is that they offer toddlers a chance to socialise with other youngsters and offer them the opportunity to participate in activities they might not be able to do at home.

Preschoolers - 3 to 5 years

The advantage of putting preschoolers in centre based care is that it gives them an opportunity to practice their language and learn social skills. Three to five year old children are keen to build peer relationships and play with their friends. A quality child care centre can be very beneficial in helping children at this age learn many early skills and provide children with the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities they might not be able to do at home.

Home based care is also great for preschoolers, provided they have access to age-appropriate resources and games, and have frequent contact with other children their age. An in-home carer can supplement care with community activities at a local library or park, play groups, or other group activities like swimming lessons.

When is best?

Choosing the best time to participate in group activities or put your child in care will depend on their personality as well as your family's work schedule. There is no perfect age and each child will adjust to the care environment in a different way.

You know your child's personality better than anyone else – consider the following questions as you go about choosing when to put your child in care:

  • Is your child confident with new people and quick to make new friends?
  • Does he or she adjust well to new and/or unfamiliar environments?
  • Is your child easily overwhelmed by noise and activity?
  • Is your child a physically active little person who wants to take part in everything or more of an observer?

When thinking about care for children under five think about group size and the level of stimulation. Ideally, the younger the child the smaller the group should be, so that noise and activity levels can be moderated.

Think about the consistency of the group – if your child's care environment is comprised of carers and children who are the same week after week it will enable your child to develop lasting friendships and relationships and a comfortable foundation for personal development. Children in less stable care environments spend more time meeting new people than they do building lasting relationships.

Even if you are a full time stay at home parent, it can be helpful for children to gain experience in a group care environment before they start school so they are comfortable being looked after by adults other than their parents.

Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect age to put your child in care as it varies for everyone. Try and relax into your decision and your positive approach will have a great effect on your child.

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