Backup Childcare

Backup Childcare Strategies

2018 Update: We still stand by this discussion on backup childcare strategies; you may also want to check out our most recent discussion on snow days and working parents.

What does your backup childcare situation look like, ladies? How many backup layers do you have, how did you decide on those, and has your backup plan ever failed you? 

In my experience, there are two main times this can come up: your sitter/nanny can cancel — or your child may be too sick to send to a group care situation like daycare.

When Your Sitter Cancels (But Your Child is Well)

When my older son, J, was about a year old, I got invited to speak at a local event for fashion bloggers. It was a big honor, and I was looking forward to it — and my babysitter at the time, a girl in her early 20s, knew that I was worrying about what to wear, getting my hair done, preparing my speech, and more. Still, the morning of the event, she called to cancel, complaining of a headache. Um… great. (We later fired her for other reasons, but man, her frequent, last-minute work cancellations based on headaches and other vague health problems should have been a sign to us that she was not cut out for regular childcare work, at least for us.)

My backup childcare plan at the time was: 1) My husband or I would stay home — in this case, it was my husband. That was it. At the time, my nearest relatives who could have watched the kiddo (my brother and MIL) were both working full time. I suppose in that particular instance, where I had a speaking gig, I could have begged one of them to take the day off at the last minute, but I would have hated to do it. I suppose another plan would have been to ask another friend who had a full-time nanny if her nanny could have taken my child — but it would have been a totally foreign situation for everyone, since he’d only had a few playdates with her son, and both boys were so young they were more of a social outing for me and my friend.

Fevers and Green Snot: When Your Child is Too Sick for Daycare

On the flip side, if you’re in a group care situation like daycare, there may be strict rules about when you must keep a sick child at home — at J’s old daycare you couldn’t send him until 24 hours had passed since he last had a fever. Taking care of a child sick with a head cold can be low key — turn on Winnie the Pooh, keep a full cup of water/juice in front of him, and set up shop with your laptop or Blackberry to keep an eye on work. But some kiddos (or is it all kiddos during some phases?) can be clingy and whiny and want to snuggle in your arms, or get upset without your full attention… which can make working a challenge. (As my boys get older I’m already starting to miss those NEED-MY-MOMMY moments!) As we’ve noted before, this is one of the downsides to daycare.

So, ladies, what do you do about backup childcare? Particularly for those of you who don’t have family nearby — what’s your Plan B? And for those of you who’ve been around the block a few times, do you have any tips for younger moms? I remember one working mom advised me, “say you’re sick yourself — a working mother should never say she can’t do something because her kid is sick” — an interesting perspective that I’ve always remembered.

There are a number of backup childcare strategies that every working mom should know about -- and the reasons why one layer of backup childcare is not enough!


  1. PhilanthropyGirl says:

    So my kiddo is usually home with dad, but during the summer DH picks up contract work that overlaps with my work day. My backup for DH, in this order:

    1. Friends of grandmotherly age – I’ve got two ladies in my circle of friends that now have grandchildren of their own, but those grandchildren are not local. They often are free during the day, or have flexible schedules they can rearrange.
    2. SAHM friends with children slightly older than mine, who are willing to take the monster for the day
    3. Work-from-home or comp-hour options thru my employer – my boss is pretty lax so in a tight spot I can usually work from home or make up my hours
    4. Call my mom in a panic and hope she can make the two-hour trip and isn’t already committed to watching my sister’s kids.

    This summer I’ve done all four.

    When kiddo is sick and DH isn’t home, I’m the back-up.

    I think Kat’s friend’s advice is pretty know-your-work-place. In my company, others are way more understanding if my kid is sick than if it’s me. We power through colds/flu/etc… frequently, but everyone seems to understand that if your child is sick there aren’t other options.

  2. My husband’s work offers a back-up care service that we haven’t used yet, but it’s either placement at another daycare or an individual at your home. We haven’t taken advantage yet because luckily we’ve been able to make it work on the two occasions she’s been banned from daycare, but I’m not sure which we’ll choose when we need to. She’s old enough now that I’d feel terrible taking her to a daycare with strangers, but my husband isn’t wild about having someone in our house.

    • Totally Screwed says:

      Take a look at the rules BEFORE you need to use it — as I found out during the one time I needed it, you can’t use the backup care if your kid is actively sick. So it could be useful for the day after a fever during the 24-hour ban, but not the day of.

    • Anonymous says:

      I used this once through my husband’s company when daycare was closed FOREVER during the blizzard in DC last winter. We had one awesome care giver and two that I wouldn’t hire again. With one of them, my 12-month-old fell off the couch backward and bumped his head pretty hard. Accidents happen, I guess, but I was pretty mad. I am not super confident that the average person from a place like this could look after a 1-yo and a 3-yo at the same time (which may have been too tall of an order on my part anyway!) Still, it’s nice to have in a pinch and I keep suggesting to my employer that they provide this benefit,

    • A suggestion I heard was to work from home on the day that the backup sitter is in your house. And I think the rules vary based on which policy the employer buys; some cover only group settings, which may or may not allow actively sick kids (query whether you want an actively sick child surrounded by other actively sick children, but there have been days I would have done it), and some cover in-home care for actively sick kids.

      Also, one of my very early childhood memories was going to a downtown “sick kid” daycare when I had chicken pox. They had a “chicken pox” room and we got to eat popsicles, watch movies, and cuddle with giant pillows. I remember it being AWESOME.

    • We have something similar. I have loved the backup centers. The people-who-come-to-your-home – we’ve had two, both have been great, but in all honesty, I waited until my kids were old enough to use the phone to use them. Right now I’m using College Nannies and Tutors for backup (they are national, but franchised), and I’ve been pretty happy with the people we’ve had so far (three different ones).

    • Anonymous says:

      My husband’s firm offers this benefit also – ours is through Bright Horizons. I few weeks ago my home daycare was closed for a provider personal day and I had a client meeting come up. At first, I tried to get my 10 month old placed in a center – it took all day long for them to basically say “sorry, none of the centers called us back – they usually don’t when they don’t have spots.” Others can correct me, but since day care centers have years long waiting lists in the area, I can’t imagine that they open up spots for back up very often. Anyways, I had someone come to my house and we were very pleased. My husband ended up working from home, but she kept him well cared for upstairs all day long. I just so happened to request back up care again for tomorrow as my son came home with a low fever. I requested the same person I had before, but got someone else. I may work from home for part of the day so I can see how things go….

      • Re: Bright Horizons backup, if you live in a big city there’s probably a dedicated center that is just backup, or designated backup spots in normal centers. The central BH call line is hit or miss, I’m not sure why it’s inconsistent. Instead, Google Map the specific center you want to find a spot in (whether a dedicated backup, or another center on the employer’s list) and call directly, in my experience the centers will take direct requests and you get your yes/no much faster than through the central clearinghouse.

  3. Totally Screwed says:

    We really don’t have reliable backup care. Sure, a few friend we could call on if it was an all caps emergency, but no one that I’d be comfortable with calling to watch my kiddo if she was just too sick to go to daycare and both H and I had to be at work.

    My firm has backup care, but, as I found out the one time I needed to use if for an Emergency (in person client meeting, not really an EMERGENCY) — they aren’t that great if it’s last minute OR if your child has a fever and/or is throwing up. That time my H was in town and was able to leave work to be with the baby.

    I’m usually the one on-call if kiddo is sick. It’s rare that I have something that I couldn’t either do from home around a sick kid OR put off until the next day, when I do, I usually warn my husband that morning that if she does get sick, he’s on call. If it’s more than one day out, we alternate.

    Our daycare is so-so on snow days — we’re in the DC area and it follows the Fed Schedule, but snow days are kind of meaningless for both my husband and me. I can work from home in theory, but my little one was too young to entertain herself the last two winters. During Snowcopalypse our regular babysitter — a HS student who lives a few doors down — came over for a few hours so I could get some stuff done, and I worked during naps.

    Anyway, we’re basically without any reliable backup care — I just cross my fingers when my H is out of town. This is one of the reasons I really hate living far away from family.

  4. Legally Brunette says:

    DC ladies, can anyone comment on the quality of back up emergency care through White House Nannies? Or is there another reliable agency you would recommend? I’m always the back up default parent because DH often travels, but I can’t keep taking sick leave left and right. I’m thinking that it may be worth it to sign up with a back up care agency just for the peace of mind.

    I’m in gov’t so no back up option through my employer.

    • Anonymous says:

      I have the same question. My baby is about to start daycare near husband’s work (husband reverse commutes out of DC). I live and work downtown and need to find backup for the few days out of the year when my husband doesn’t go in to the office.

    • octagon says:

      My agency offers a backup care benefit, and the times I’ve used it they have sent nannies from White House Nannies. They have been fine – one we liked well enough that we have hired her for side babysitting jobs.

  5. Daycares that let their teachers moonlight as babysitters can solve pretty much all backup care options. We have about 5 teachers at my daughter’s daycare authorized to bring her home from school for the evening if we both have to work late (one has a key and she makes sure the right teacher for the day has it). When she’s sick, I can call the daycare and ask them to send someone for part or all of the day (e.g., morning-shift teacher comes in the afternoon, sub teachers might be available, etc.), and then I work from home if possible or if she’s clingy – but since she knows the teachers, she’s usually ok with me leaving if she’s only mildly ill. Plus, Happy Feet or Frozen with “special orange water” (Pedialyte) gets you 90 minutes of solid couch laptop time to work. Daycare teachers are also our date night babysitters. I know some daycares don’t allow teachers to moonlight; I would have to have a nanny if I didn’t have a daycare that allowed it.

  6. Telework agreements in my agency specifically prohibit working from home if someone you’re the primary caregiver to is also present, so teleworking is out.

    Now that my son is old enough to be in elementary school there’s already a two-layer system built in for us, which is nice. I intentionally chose a local full-time daycare that also does before/after school care rather than the school’s before/after care because the daycares close less frequently. They cover teacher work days, most snow days, etc. for a small increased fee.

    When I was a single mom with no family in the area (DC metro area), I just had to use at the last minute if he couldn’t go to preschool that day. I work in a field where not reporting during weather closures is not acceptable (those are the days I most need to be at work unfortunately). Now that I’m married, I have in-laws to fall back on, but they work full time as well so I haven’t actually utilized that yet. My husband has much more leave/flexibility than I do, but works in the same field so we’re often tied up at the same time.

    I need to work on expanding my mommy network. It’s tough to get close with the stay-at-home moms though, they aren’t generally open to evening/weekend activities in my experience, which is the only time I’m free.

  7. As a doctor, I can’t work from home and cancelling all of my patients for the day is a nightmare. Our closest family are 4 hours away (it used to be worse – halfway across the country!) So I have used backup care a lot. I’ve had two different employers that subsidized backup care, one through Bright Horizons and the other through The option is open to everyone!

    My tips: Ask around for recommended nanny agencies in your area – many of these backup services subcontract to local nanny agencies, and we were given the tip to always ask for a specific one that was good in our area. Once we did that, we met one woman we loved (retired preschool teacher), and then always requested her in particular. The other tip is to learn the rules (how early/late can you call? how sick can the child be? can medication be given?). We sometimes would set up a backup nanny the night before even if we weren’t sure he would really be too sick for daycare the next morning, because it often takes 2-3 hours from the time you call in the morning until someone can be at your house.

    I also have the names of some college and grad students handy, as they often have flexible schedules. And my friend’s nanny knows lots of other nannies including those who are between jobs and might be available. Haven’t yet used these resources at the last minute, however.

    Final tip: breastfeed and get flu shots!

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