Scrambling for last-minute child care when your care plan falls apart is never a great feeling. However, it is an extremely common scenario for many parents, even when you have a regular nanny or daycare.
“It’s happened to every nanny and their employers at some point when the nanny has an emergency and the parents are stuck without child care,” says Stephanie Felzenberg, a nanny, family assistant, writer and editor who runs the advice blog Be the Best Nanny.
Maybe your babysitter called in sick. Maybe you forgot that your nanny or daycare had a scheduled vacation. Parents juggle a lot, and dropping the ball once in a while is an understandable mistake (Been there!). But in these situations, you have to figure out your options quickly. That’s where last-minute child care comes in — and, whenever possible, having a solid plan for backup child care already in place.
What is last-minute child care?
Last-minute child care is the solution you call upon when you’re faced with an unexpected child care need or emergency on short notice. Last-minute options can take many forms. At daycare centers, it’s sometimes called “drop-in” care. Child care agencies may offer “emergency sitters.” Either way, the principle is the same: it’s high-quality, reliable child care ASAP.
Why do parents need last-minute child care options?
Simply put — parents need last-minute child care options because, well, “life happens,” regardless of your carefully coordinated child care plans. In an ideal scenario, you have a list of trusted, backup options you can turn to in a pinch — from sitters and nearby drop-in centers to a neighbor. With a few different options established in advance, the likelihood that one will work out is much higher.
Of course, not all busy parents can have options in place, and finding last-minute care can be stressful. Even if you work remotely and have flexible hours, attempting to do your job while simultaneously watching one or more children can be highly distracting and jeopardize your mental health.
“It’s always a scramble,” says Ginny Bowen Olson, a career executive coach and mother of two in Greensboro, North Carolina, who sporadically travels for work. “What I have to do is come up with a plan A, B and C,” she says, “and then figure out like two days before which of it makes the most sense for everybody who’s involved.”
Olson has used a number of strategies: asking for help from a neighbor and her business partner, hiring a college student to babysit and dropping her kids off at a summer day camp that accepts drop-ins.
How do you choose the right last-minute child care option?
With last-minute care, your options may be more limited, so it can help to focus on what’s most important. As Felzenberg says, “When it comes to short-term care, the priority is safety and trustworthy care for children.”
Beyond your child’s well-being, you might relax some of your usual criteria, such as curriculum style or convenience of commute, and save these considerations for later if you decide to use the care option more regularly.
If you don’t have last-minute child care options at the ready, you might need to depend on reviews and recommendations from other parents or go through a reputable service or agency that provides background checks or other safeguards.
What are the different last-minute child care options?
There are a variety of last-minute child care options available, depending what you need, when you need it, what you can afford and where you live.
1. Recommended last-minute babysitter or temporary nanny
If you’re struggling to find a sitter, you’re not alone. Most parents today say hiring a babysitter is a challenge. Here are a few ways to getting starting on your search:
- Start by asking people you already know, such as friends or parents at your child’s school, for babysitter referrals.
- If you have a regular nanny or sitter, Felzenberg suggests asking if they have friends who’d be interested in the job.
- A local Facebook group for parents or neighbors can be a great way to find out about sitters or child care centers near you. If you haven’t joined one, try searching Facebook for “parents + [the name of your neighborhood or city]” and see if there’s one you can request to join. Once admitted, post in the group asking for recommendations. (I was able to find two experienced babysitters this way).
- Find one-time or regular babysitters near you, pay for a service like Care.com, where you can read parent reviews, and caregivers must complete a background check.
How much does a last-minute sitter or nanny cost?
Sitter and nanny rates vary widely, but they don’t necessarily charge more for last-minute or one-time jobs.
“When negotiating hourly rates,” says Felzenberg, “the amount is usually based on the caregiver’s years of experience, level of education, the job duties they are asked to perform and the cost of living in the area where they work.”
Use Care’s rates calculator to help determine the going rate in your area.
2. On-demand or emergency child care services
Some apps or services provide options for booking last-minute child care. So, rather than frantically calling around to find one sitter’s number, a service like Care can provide direct connection to a pool of sitters in your area who are open to last-minute jobs, so you can find child care more quickly — especially important when you’re in a bind.
In my experience, using an on-demand sitter service to quickly book last-minute, one-time child care worked out very well. We’d forgotten that our nanny was taking a weeklong vacation and briefly panicked. Luckily, a great sitter was available and willing to come to our home the next day. They were more expensive than our usual nanny, but it was worth the peace of mind of not having to juggle work and parenting.
When choosing any app or online service to find or book caregivers, consider these factors:
- How established is the company? How long has it been in operation?
- How large is its network of care providers, and is it available in your area?
- How does the service vet caregivers in their network? Do they require background checks? And if so, what kind, and how often?
- How much information are you able to see about the caregivers? Can you read reviews from other parents, or call or message sitters before hiring them?
To use on-demand services, you typically put in a request for care in your area, specifying your dates and care needs. You may need to create an account in order to do so. Then, the service sends your request to caregivers on their platform, and you’re notified if someone is interested in the job.
How much do on-demand child care services cost?
On top of paying your caregiver’s hourly rate, you may be asked to pay a monthly or annual membership or subscription fee that grants you direct access to a network of vetted providers. There may also be a one-time signup fee or a set fee or commission each time you book.
3. Workplace assistance programs or resources
Some employers offer backup child care programs as a benefit to their workers, which might include low- or no-cost backup child care. For example, a work-sponsored, backup care program, such as the ones offered through Care for Business, can connect parents to in-center child care, as well as in-home options at low or no cost to employees.
“The best way to make use of an offered company benefit is familiarizing yourself with the service offered and creating an open line of communication with your direct manager,” says Ashley Reckdenwald, founder of the resource site Working Mom Notes.
If your employer partners with a child backup care provider, connect with your HR department to learn more about the program. They can answer questions about:
- How to backup care works.
- Your co-pay and allotment of backup care days.
- In-network vs. personal network reimbursement options.
- How far in advance you should book backup care.
If your employer does not offer child care benefits, you can advocate for benefits to support working parents. Research shows investing in child care benefits like backup care helps to increase productivity and retention in the workforce.
Reckdenwel suggests talking to management. “It’s important to communicate with an employer that having a benefit like this will help improve recruitment, retention and employee engagement,” she says. “There are companies out there that can do the heavy lifting by creating a benefit package that caters to parents and works for the company.”
Costs vary by organization and benefits program. Child care fees may be free or reduced.
4. Drop-in daycare services at child care centers and facilities
Some daycare facilities, including national chains such as KidsPark and KinderCare, offer drop-in child care services. However, you need to call ahead to your local center to inquire whether or not they have enough space for your child for the given day and time needed.
Fear not, however. According to Jennifer Liu, district leader for KinderCare Learning Centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, even if you’re on a super-tight schedule (say, the night before or day of), it’s still possible to secure a spot at a center like KinderCare, which takes reservations with less than 24 hours notice.
Find a local drop-in daycare by searching online for “drop in daycare near me” or “drop in daycare.” If you have a few days or weeks, you might call around and compare multiple centers in your area. And as always, make sure to do your safety due diligence at any care center before leaving your child in their care. Consider this expert advice for choosing a daycare.
How much does drop-in care at child care centers cost?
Rates for drop-in daycare vary by company and location. As one example, KidsPark in Scottsdale, Arizona charges a daily rate of $70 (not including meals and the registration fee) while the daily rate for the KidsPark center in Sacramento, California is $96.
5. Family and friends as last-minute child care
It may make sense to contact any friends, relatives or neighbors who would be open and able to help in a pinch, though Felzenberg says there are both pros and cons to using friends and family for child care:
- Pros: You already know and trust the caregiver. They may also be open to helping without pay.
- Cons: There’s a potential to create conflict with that person. “This is true for any working relationship, but especially in child care,” says Felzenberg. “For example, a grandmother may feel the parent is being condescending.” In some cases, it could be easier to give instructions to a paid caregiver.
Either way, if someone isn’t a professional caregiver, they may appreciate or need more guidance from you regarding your child’s care. I find it helpful to walk sitters through various scenarios before I leave and write down important notes, like feeding and bedtimes.
Should you pay family and friends for last-minute child care?
While friends and family may be willing to help for free, make sure you agree on expectations beforehand. You may choose to pay them a standard babysitting rate if this helps you set boundaries.
6. Trade child care with other parents
Some parents establish networks with other parents for mutual support or last-minute child care needs. At times, Olson has traded babysitting with her neighbor. “There’s some reciprocity,” she says.
Speak to other parents in your area about whether they are open to trading child care support. This is another situation in which local Facebook groups and other neighborhood groups like Nextdoor can come in handy.
And the best part? It’s free! You provide child care for another child, not cash out of pocket.
“Your child’s school may also offer care before or after school,” says Felzenberg.
These programs are usually affordable for families and often provide last-minute, drop-in care if there’s space the day you need it. Check the school’s website, refer to orientation materials and inquire with the school’s administration for more info as needed — or even better, get information at the start of the year so you know your options.
If a child care program is available through your school in the morning and/or after school, you might not need to hire a sitter for as long or at all.
How much does before- and after-school care cost?
The cost of before- and after-school care varies, with some programs offering free or reduced rates to families who qualify based on financial need. They also vary by structure: they might be hosted in the school, but operated by a nonprofit or government program. According to a 2020 report by America After 3PM, which includes public and private schools, as well as cities and towns, Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs, the average cost of after-school programs was just under $100 per week.
8. Nanny placement agencies
When you need to find reliable help ASAP, a nanny placement agency “can ease parents’ minds by running background checks and verifying job references,” says Felzenberg.
If you’d like to do more due diligence on your own, she adds, you can ask for written reference letters or for the contact information of the caregiver’s past employers.
To find a reputable agency, read reviews of the agency online, says Felzenberg. She points to the Association of Premier Nanny Agencies (APNA) website as a resource. “APNA has ethical standards their members must maintain. APNA member agencies have their contracts, applications and business practices scrutinized by peers to ensure that only the best agencies bear the APNA seal.”
How much does a nanny agency cost?
Nanny agencies have varying costs and fee structures, so it’s important to ask upfront for clarification around pricing. For example, On Call Nanny, an agency that serves the greater Seattle and San Francisco Bay areas, charges $35 per hour for last-minute and short-term care (they pay nannies on your behalf). Doublemint Sitting in Florida, on the other hand, charges $14 per hour for one child, with a $25 fee for requests within 24 hours. Both agencies charge more for holidays.
What documents might be required for last-minute child care?
Whichever kind of last-minute child care you choose, you’ll want to organize your child’s information. Liu suggests having important documents ready to go:
- An immunization report.
- A copy of your child’s most recent medical report (often available through your healthcare provider’s online portal).
- Emergency contact information.
- Any other critical info about your child, such as food allergies.
How to prepare your child for a change in care
An abrupt change in routine can be disruptive for many children, so it’s important to take some time to talk to your child about what’s happening in advance. Children may feel confused about where their usual caregiver is, or have separation anxiety in a new place when you leave.
“It’s expected when you drop a child off at a new provider for them to be sad for a minute,” says Liu. “Teachers are really good at knowing how to comfort them. They have lots of tricks that they use to help children to feel confident and safe in their space.”
You might also pack a comfort item like a blanket or toy to help kids feel more at home.
If you’re having a new sitter over, explain that you have a new friend coming temporarily until their regular caregiver can return, says Felzenberg. “Ask your children to welcome the sitter into your home and get them excited about their arrival.” You can also share ideas of fun activities they can do together.