How to find childcare in Denver

Thinking about having children or trying to find someone to care for your kids? Here’s what you need to know.
9 min. read
Beatrice Scheuermann and her son, Hans, play on the floor in their Congress Park home. March 22, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Are you struggling to find someone to care for your children in Denver? A lot of Denver parents we've spoken to are and are probably having the same or similar struggles as you.

The process tests -- and sometimes wrecks -- the most enthusiastic parents, as Denverite's ongoing series on childcare has shown. The industry charges more than many families can afford, childcare centers pay workers too little, and children are suffering the consequences. While policymakers are trying to make some fixes to Colorado's childcare crisis and conversations about universal pre-K continue at the federal level, Denver parents need help now.

Few come out of the search for childcare unscathed from stress. But families, providers and advocates are figuring it out -- even if it's one of the hardest things they've ever done.

Over the past few weeks, parents have shared some best practices and tips you can use to juggle making money to survive while keeping another human being (or several) alive.

Here's what we've learned.

A hopscotch pattern on the floor in Shaniq Wells' before- and after-school childcare classroom at Trevista at Horace Mann in Sunnyside. April 8, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

If you're thinking about having children, it's never too early to consider who's going to care for them when you're at work.

Denver lacks a public option for infant care and early childcare for most families. That means parents have to try their luck in the private sector and scrounge up the funding to pay for it -- and it can cost a lot of money.

According to the Bell Policy Center, typical families are paying between 16% and 27% of their annual income on childcare costs.

Some families rely on childcare centers with long waitlists and fees that often rival the in-state college tuition. While centers are tried and true options, many have closed and cut back services during the pandemic and are often forced to shutter during COVID outbreaks, disrupting parents' work schedules.

Families who can afford it -- and some who can't -- hire expensive nannies. Some offer live-in services and others work set hours and then go home.  Many parents who can't afford their own nanny or want to see their kids socialize pair up with other families for budget-friendlier-yet-not-that-friendly nanny shares.

Other families go the route of licensed in-home childcare, where educators often offer more affordable services than centers or nannies. Sometimes these spots have shorter waitlists, too.

When all else fails, if you are so lucky, you can rely on family, friends or neighbors. This is a solid solution if there are people you trust and one most Coloradans use.

And if that doesn't work, you might have to quit your job or work from home with a cranky baby until you figure something out.

Creative Learning Preschool in west Aurora, just on the border of Denver's Central Park neighborhood. March 22, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

So let's say you want to send your kid to a childcare center. How much does it cost and how are families paying for it?

For starters, make sure you have enough for down payments for childcare centers. Some parents we spoke to spent as much as $500 on application fees alone and still struggled to get a spot.

And it wouldn't hurt to ensure you have money to pay tuition too, which can cost upwards of $2,000 a month at some centers and nearly always costs more than $1,000.

"The cost is pretty high," Elsa Holguín, head of the Denver Preschool Program, told Denverite. "The average in Denver is $14,000 a year. And that's for preschool. As you go to the younger children, it gets even more expensive."

Because childcare centers have been closing more frequently under COVID-19 regulations, it's also wise to save up some extra money for backup care and last-minute sitters.

Accountant Sylvia Johnston, who has one son, said she spent $30,000 a year between her childcare center and babysitters.

There are some options for public funding.

Families with older children can connect with the Denver Preschool Program, which offers tuition credits to all four-year-olds and some three-year-olds. Starting in fall 2023, the state plans to provide 10 free hours of pre-K to all four-year-olds.

Qualifying families can also get support for younger children through Denver Great Kids Head Start and Colorado Childcare Assistance Funding through the Colorado Department of Human Services. Those who receive food and medical assistance through Colorado Works should consult with their caseworkers about eligibility for childcare-specific funding.

But many people -- even those struggling to pay for Denver's high cost of living -- may not qualify and will have to shoulder the costs themselves. Parents we spoke to quit their jobs for higher-paying work, borrowed money from family and friends, and quit saving for retirement to pay for care.

Bodhi Johnston is ready to roll as his mother, Sylvia, prepares to take him out for the day. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite you think you can afford it. How do you find a childcare center?

Start researching. Some parents search Google. Others consult neighborhood groups on Facebook, Nextdoor and other social media sites, and scour online reviews. People even chat with other parents at the playground.

Perhaps the most useful resource is Colorado Shines, which rates childcare centers and offers other information for expecting and new parents. You can look up centers by distance from your work or home address. And you can even get one-on-one help with a childcare center navigator by calling 1-877-338-CARE (2273), Mon-Fri, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or through a live online chat.

You can also call 211 to connect with United Way, which offers a free childcare resource and a referral service.

Waitlists for childcare centers sometimes stretch for two years or more. Some families are getting in line even before they conceive, making finding a spot highly competitive -- even for people who think they are planning early.

With all the uncertainty of pregnancy and adoption, paying to get on a waitlist before having a child can be heartbreaking if things don't work out as planned. But these days, it's a risk that may be worth taking.

Shaniq Wells in her before- and after-school classroom at Trevista at Horace Mann in Sunnyside. April 8, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Let's say you want to hire a nanny. Now what?

According to Colorado Nanny, a placement service, most CPR-certified and qualified nannies are paid between $24 and $26 an hour. Highly skilled nannies with years of experience in early-childhood education can cost upwards of $30 an hour.

At $24 an hour, full-time nannies are making $49,920 a year -- or 53% of the annual earnings of a household earning the area median income of $94,320 for a family of three.

There are a number of nanny placement services including Colorado Nanny, the national A Perfect Fit and ABC Nannies and Domestics. For families looking for emergency childcare, there are companies like There, There Backup Care and Nanny Poppinz.

When hiring nannies outside of official agencies, families generally conduct their own background checks and ensure the people they're hiring are CPR-certified and have some childcare experience and references.

Sylvia and Bodhi Johnston play in a ball pit in Bodhi's room. March 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Parents who are new to town or just aren't well connected often reach out on social media to meet other families and potential childcare providers.

One of the most active groups we've found is the nearly 13,000-member Highlands/Denver Childcare Facebook group, where childcare providers post their services and rates and families connect for nanny shares and announce what services they need.

Other recommended groups for childcare resources and community support include Sloans Lake and Highlands Mamas, Denver Mommas, Denver Moms and Childcare Connect.

Many parents figure it out because of generous bosses.

While not everybody can work from home or have flexible schedules, many who do told Denverite they got through the first years of their children's lives thanks to the grace of their employers.

Some parents worked early mornings, late nights, and weekends. Others took paid -- and sometimes unpaid -- leave. In a few cases, parents' companies offered unlimited time off.

With many employers struggling to hire and retain workers, companies have become more accommodating to parents. Some parents used their child's earliest years to reconsider their careers. And if a boss is unforgiving to new parents, things will only get worse as the child grows older. Maybe, in that case, it's a sign that it's time to find a new job that will accommodate your growing family.

A little good news...sort of...

You're going to figure this out. And it's good training. Free kindergarten is coming and that sounds pretty nice for the family budget.

But that's about when you realize summer camps, before- and after-school programs and other extracurriculars boot up, and you might find yourself stuck on waitlists and paying high fees again.

Happily, though, you'll be an old pro at navigating Denver's wacky systems by then, and your kid(s) might have the linguistic capacity and manners to thank you.

If you have resources we're missing or stories you'd like to share, send us a note at [email protected].

Explore the series:

Multi-year waitlists, tuition as expensive as a second mortgage: Denver is in a childcare crisis

Denver's broken childcare system forced this single mom to declare bankruptcy

This early-childhood educator couldn't afford childcare for her six-year-old. Why keep teaching?

Lawmakers propose a fix for Colorado's childcare shortage

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