You may not even be showing yet, so how can it already be time to line up child care for your unborn baby?

It’s crazy, but true. Securing a day care slot or nanny usually begins while baby is still in utero. Many a new mom has been surprised to find that day care centers have waiting lists. And some of them are years long. You may have to pay a nonrefundable fee to join a waitlist, too.

Some experts advise getting on waiting lists (plural) as soon as you know you’re pregnant. Here are some pointers and things you can do now to avoid a mad scramble a year from now.

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Consider costs

  • Are you sitting down? Day care costs can range from about $150 to $350 a week depending on star rating, services and location.
  • Tuition is going up, while space available is contracting, the Wilmington StarNews reported in July 2022. “The cost for an infant per year for child care is more than $9,000 in North Carolina, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and more than $8,000 for toddlers.” COVID impacted child care everywhere. In Wilmington, some longtime day care centers closed permanently. Nationally, about 9% closed.
  • “The average fee for an infant at a five-star rated child care center is $13,884 a year in Mecklenburg County, or $1,157 a month,” according to a 2020 Axios Charlotte report. “Four-star rated programs and toddler tuition are only slightly less, while hiring a nanny can cost far more.”
  • About that star-rating system: To meet state licensing requirements, a four- or five-star day care center must have a 1-to-4 ratio of infants to teachers. Learn about North Carolina’s star-rated system here.
  • Religious-sponsored child care programs don’t get a star rating unless they choose to apply. In addition, church-affiliated day care centers often give preference to members. Younger siblings of already-enrolled children usually get admitted to day care centers before another child.
  • “Charlotte isn’t unusual,” according to the 2020 Axios story. “Day care costs more than in-state tuition and fees for public universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia, according to the advocacy group, Child Care Aware of America.”

The nanny route

  • “Hiring a nanny isn’t cheap,” according to the 2020 Axios story. “Wages cost anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour, and if you spend more than $2,000, you’re legally obligated to provide a W-2 and pay applicable taxes, adding another layer of legal and accounting hassle.”
  • If you’re considering a nanny, is a resource that may help you get started.
  • Sharing a nanny with another family is one way to make this option a bit more affordable. The nanny generally splits her time between the two households – one week at one family’s house, the next week at the other family’s house. Splitting a nanny doesn’t divide the cost in half, as explained here. A nanny should earn more for caring for two children as opposed to one. But she doesn’t generally expect to earn twice the pay.

Day care: Call, tour, ask questions

  • Figure out when you need your baby to start day care. You may be able to use Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits, unused vacation and sick days – and even family help – to push out that date beyond when you return to work.
  • Research options available in your area. Here’s a link to help get you started. Enter your ZIP code at to find day care centers near you.
  • Know what to ask when you call. The Charlotte Observer offered some pointers in an Oct. 14, 2019 story, some of which we share below:
  • Admissions process: What age children are accepted? Is there a waiting list, and how many people are ahead of you? What’s the average time you might wait before your baby is admitted? Must you accept a space when your name is called from the waitlist – or can you defer? How much is the deposit you’ll have to make, and when is the balance due? Axios Charlotte reported: “The timing is tricky. If a slot comes open too early, you might be forced to choose whether you want to pay thousands of dollars in tuition to hold it, or give the slot up and hope for the best somewhere else. Get in too late, and you’ll be searching for stopgap child care arrangements for months, with no guarantee of when you’ll be able to get your child into a day care.”
  • Schedule a tour before you put down a deposit. Notice the environment. Is the place clean? Do babies appear happy and well cared for? Are crying babies attended to quickly? What’s the teacher-to-child ratio? Will they allow you to talk with parents whose babies are currently enrolled?
  • Consider safety. Ask to see safety guidelines. Ask about the training teachers and assistants receive. Has the staff all passed background checks? What’s the staff turnover rate? How will you sign your baby in and out each day? Do they offer video monitoring that parents can access? What if your baby is injured or gets sick at day care – how is that handled? Are immunizations required for children and staff?
  • Ask about day-to-day operations. What are the day care center’s hours? Knowing when you can drop off and pick up your baby can be a determining factor. What calendar does the center follow? (Is it the same one the public school system uses?) What kind of communication can you expect from teachers and administrators, and how often?
  • Other considerations. Does the day care serve meals or snacks? If so, how often during the day? Is the center equipped to care for children with special needs, including those with special diets and allergies?

You may qualify for financial aid.

Expectant parents often experience sticker shock after learning about the costs of day care. Try not to panic. You may be eligible for help.