Finding Infant Care in San Francisco: Harder than Buying a House?


At NurtureList, the largest share of our concierge requests come from expectant or new parents looking for infant daycare. Unfortunately, San Francisco suffers from a dramatic supply and demand imbalance for infant care. In this post, we explore reasons for the scarcity of infant daycare in San Francisco and also share tips we have learned from working on scores of searches for parents.

The Numbers

Every year, approximately 8,000 children are born in San Francisco, and according to the California Child Care Resource & Referral Network, there are roughly 18,000 children age 0 to 2 residing in the city (any child under age 2 is considered an infant when it comes to licensing rules).  By our calculations, there are only 4,000 to 4,500 infant spots at licensed daycares (including both centers and home-based daycares). In other words, only 1 spot for every 3.5 infants. Dire as that sounds, it’s even worse for infants that are under 12 months old, as a significant fraction of daycares do not care for children less than a year old.

Why Daycare?

Though we’ve seen infant daycare rates edging above $2,000 per month per child, daycare continues to be the most affordable and reliable option when compared to hiring a nanny or entering into a nanny-share agreement. At an average rate of $24 per hour for a nanny in San Francisco, and assuming 50 hours a week and 4 weeks a month, a nanny will cost approximately $4,800 per month and is more expensive than daycare even when the cost is shared by two families. Additionally, nannies require a significant amount of management overhead from parents, are subject to greater risks of turnover and unexpected absences, and involve managing a relationship with another family in the case of a nanny-share.

Ratios and Economics

Perhaps the biggest reason that infant care is so scarce in San Francisco is that licensing rules require both center-based and home-based daycares to maintain a maximum ratio of 4 infants to 1 caregiver (many parents prefer even 3:1). Ratios can be much higher once children reach the age of 2 (up to 12:1 at centers and 6:1 at home-based facilities), which means that daycare owners can care for a lot more children if they aren’t caring for infants. Unless infant care tuition is 100% to 200% more expensive than preschool tuition (currently, it is only about 30% to 50% more expensive) to compensate for the lower permitted child-to-caregiver ratios, it is much more profitable for schools to serve older children than infants.

Home-based daycares, which provide a significant portion of the infant spots in San Francisco, are also limited to caring for 3 infants if they want to care for additional children, further capping the number of infant spots.

Throw in the high cost of labor and real estate in San Francisco, which heighten staff and space expenses, and you can imagine the struggles infant daycares face to continue operating. NurtureList recently interviewed one home-based daycare provider whose rent had doubled and despite being at capacity year-round with 14 children, found it difficult to be profitable after paying rent and two assistants a fair wage.

Few Centers

In many cities, there are large daycare centers that care for infants, but in San Francisco there are relatively few due to the economic factors explained above. Many neighborhoods lack even one center. The exceptions are centers run by Bright Horizons / Marin Day Schools — which are generally contracted with and subsidized by employers whose employees receive priority in enrollment. There are a handful of small infant centers, but they admit very few children and are perennially oversubscribed.

Aging Home-Based Daycare Owners

Home-based daycare providers are also aging and many are existing businesses after years of service. Based on our interviews with providers, we have learned that many find it simply too tiring to care for infants, especially after many years in the industry, which is why they decide to focus on older children. Meanwhile, it is difficult for younger providers to start new daycares because of the prohibitive real estate costs.

Tips For Parents

What this means for parents is that they must begin their search early. Waitlists at large centers such as Bright Horizons and Marin Day Schools often run over 1 year in length, and most home-based daycares generally operate at capacity. Few providers will commit to guaranteeing a parent a spot well in advance and most work off of a waiting list system, which many parents find frustrating. Here are some helpful tips we have picked up from assisting parents in their searches over the past several months:

    • Start early. Parents should ideally start looking 8 to 12 months in advance of needing daycare, particularly if they live in neighborhoods with relatively low capacity.
    • Join the wait list. After identifying a short-list of daycares that are a fit, be sure to join the wait list, and if the provider does not use one, call on a monthly basis starting 6 months ahead to stay top of mind with the providers.
    • Ask about the ages of current infants.  Parents can get a better sense of when infant spots will open up by asking providers if any current enrollees are expected to reach the age of 2 in the near future, when they will no longer be counted as infants under licensing rules.
    • Be flexible. Parents looking for full-time schedules generally receive priority over part-time parents because the provider does not have to find another child with a complementary schedule. If looking for a part-time position, be sure it is at least two to three full days per week with as much flexibility as possible on which particular days you need care.
    • Expand your search. If it works for your family, going to neighborhoods such as the Richmond, Sunset, Lakeshore, Outer Mission, and Excelsior will create more options and lower prices.
    • Examine your commute. If commuting out of the city for work, consider looking along your commutes rather than in the city. Recently, we’ve seen parents commuting to the South Bay having better luck with daycares in South San Francisco and Daly City.
    • Regularly check our list of openings. NurtureList maintains a list of childcare openings in San Francisco. Keep an eye on this list to stay up-to-date on current and future openings for infants and other ages.
    • Submit a free concierge request. As part of our commitment to help parents learn about the most convenient and affordable childcare options for their children, NurtureList provides a free concierge service that finds nearby daycares and preschools and connects parents with providers that fit their needs.

At the end of the day, we think that finding infant daycare is very much like buying a home in San Francisco – it is much easier in some neighborhoods than others, and it pays if you are flexible in your requirements and start your search ahead of time.

Photo credits to peasap (flickr).


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