My daughter Mel (I feel she's old enough to have graduated from Melly) has experienced pretty much every kind of daycare environment. We've done it all and here are the fruits of my wisdom:
We found ours on craigslist (I know!) about 2-3 weeks before I had to go back to work after having Mel. I loved her. She cleaned, she was loving, and she didn't charge an arm and a leg (although some do.... the first nanny we interviewed, who had no references, wanted to charge $22/hour). Since we didn't have any other kids in daycare, we were able to shield Mel from germs for most of her first year of life. The nanny prepared all the bottles, and washed them after using them. She cleaned our house, which probably saved our marriage.
The big con is that when you have a nanny, you're at the mercy of her life. Our nanny couldn't work later than 5. Some nannies call in sick a lot. If she suddenly quit, we would have been screwed.
We switched to a family home when Mel was a year old because we needed longer hours than our nanny could provide. A family home is a very small daycare in someone's house, which is (should be) certified. Unlike larger daycares, there are much fewer kids (obviously), they are cheaper, and all the ones I called had no waiting list.
The family home we used had six kids aged two and under, and two adults. Mostly the kids played in a small room and there was a little playground in their backyard. I felt Mel was safe there and although she didn't get as much individual attention, she was older now and the socialization was more important, I thought. Kids who don't start daycare till three years or older seem to adjust poorly, in my experience.
I thought this was an absolutely perfect environment for a one year old baby, aside from the fact that she was sick almost continuously the first three months at the daycare. And so was I. The other con was that the hours were shorter than a large daycare (8:30AM to 6PM) and they closed for two weeks over the winter holidays. If my husband's hours weren't so flexible, we couldn't have managed it.
After Mel outgrew the family home (and we moved), she went to a small local daycare with about 16 kids ranging from babies to age 4. I liked the closer-knit environment and the fact that I knew the name of every single child in the daycare.
There were several cons to the small daycare. First, the hours were again fairly short (8 to 5:30). Second, we had to prepare all of Mel's lunches (mostly mac and cheese). Third, we were at the mercy of the owner's personal life.... she closed down for three weeks every summer to take a vacation, leaving me to scramble for alternate childcare.
I had mixed feelings about the environment of babies along with older kids. It was nice for Mel, who likes babies. But for the babies, I worried about their safety when exposed to toddlers. And of course, there's tremendous potential for germs.
Large daycare for an older kid:
A year ago, Mel started a large daycare, run by a faceless company. OK, something about the fact that the teachers are constantly holding a large checklist of all the kids doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy, but there are definitely benefits to the large daycare. The hours are fantastic... occasionally, I've felt a bit of time pressure, but honestly, it would be pretty bad if I couldn't get to my kids by 6:30 every evening. They pretty much never close, even for blizzards. They provide lunches devised by a nutritionist. And Mel seems to really love it there. For an older kid, it's not even that expensive.
A few months ago, they started her in a kindergarten-type class of ten kids and one teacher, and it's been great for her. Yesterday, she recited The Pledge of Alloogin for me:
"I pledge alloogin to the flag, and to the 'public, al Obama and Erica."
(Sorry, I had to, it was too cute.)
Large daycare for a baby:
A month ago, we started Baby Lem in the same daycare that Mel attends. It's expensive for a baby, and I had my reservations, to be honest. I wanted her to have the same individual attention that Mel had as a baby. Also, I have to label and prepare all her bottles every morning at home and must bring home anything that is unused at the end of the day, which makes me feel like I'm running some kind of chemistry lab.
So far, I have not been unhappy though. Lem is kind of chill in personality, so she's tolerating the environment well. Also, because it's such a large daycare, they have a "baby room" with seven infants and two teachers, and she has her own assigned crib. They're very careful about hygiene: they use plastic gloves when they change diapers, and they don't allow shoes (or toddlers) in the baby room. Every time I come to pick her up, Lem is being held, and there have been only a few times that I've found her crying unattended. And now that we have two kids, I know it's impossible to shield her from germs. I'm not sure if I would have chosen them if Mel wasn't already going there, but I don't feel like it's a bad choice.
So that, in a nutshell, is our experience with childcare. Questions, comments?