Child care challenges are getting more attention as the short-term crisis created by the pandemic has turned into a severe, ongoing problem for many working families. Yet one group of working parents has not been in the spotlight—those who work before 7 in the morning, after 6 in the evening, overnight, and weekends. This is despite the reality that roughly one-third of all children younger than 6 (almost 5 million in total) have parents who work these nontraditional-hour (NTH) schedules. This group of children includes as many as 40 to 50 percent of Black and Latinx children, whose families have historically faced barriers to good jobs and education.
Policymakers have recently started focusing on the child care needs of these parents, but they have been operating in the dark, with little information about the kinds of child care parents want during nontraditional hours. This knowledge gap has hampered policymakers’ ability to ensure their strategies meet parents’ wants and needs.
New Urban Institute research findings begin to fill this need for information. Over the past year and a half, our team interviewed 41 nontraditional-hour working parents with young children. We asked them what kinds of child care they recommended during nontraditional hours and why. Their feedback provides important insights for policymakers interested in supporting these families and effectively investing pandemic relief funds and any new federal and state investments in child care.
What child care options do parents working nontraditional hours recommend?
We spoke with parents in rural southeastern Oklahoma, in urban Washington, DC, and suburban and urban areas around New Haven, Connecticut. These 41 parents were racially diverse; they held a wide variety of nontraditional hour jobs, such as in restaurants, grocery stores, and health care; they had varying schedules, including working evenings, overnight, weekends, and in the early mornings; and some had a set, stable schedule while others had a schedule that changed frequently.
Despite these variations, when asked what child care arrangements they would recommend to a hypothetical friend who worked nontraditional hours, parents across sites and racial and ethnic groups had similar child care views:
- For many nontraditional-hour periods—specifically very early morning, evening, and overnight—most parents said care in the child’s home by a relative or friend was their first choice, including when the child was sleeping.
- Some parents said that if young children are in a licensed family child care home or center during the day, extending the hours slightly right before the program opens or after it closes could benefit the child and family.
- The child care arrangements parents preferred for weekends depended on what the child was doing during the week. Parents said being at home is better on the weekends for children in licensed child care during the week, and they preferred care that involved stimulating activities on weekends, like going to the library, for children who were at home during the week.
- Parents favored care in the child’s home during most nontraditional-hour periods to support their child’s developmental needs, such as children having a sense of stability, security, and routine; sleeping in their own bed; getting a good night’s sleep; and having unrushed meals in their home.
- Parents felt caregivers whom parents didn’t know well should have some training in topics such as CPR, first aid, or child development. However, many parents did not feel such training was necessary for family or friends.
A comparison of parent recommendations with common child care-related policies and practices revealed these policies and practices often don’t support the kinds of child care arrangements parents believed were best for their children during nontraditional hours, which means these families are less likely to benefit from public investments in child care. This is of particular concern because nontraditional-hour work is more common among parents with low incomes and among parents—including Black, Latinx, and Native American parents—who already face systemic barriers to employment and education opportunities. The failure of child care policies to address nontraditional child care needs has contributed to greater inequities, rather than supporting more equitable systems.
How can policymakers better support the child care needs of parents working nontraditional hours?
States have an opportunity to address these inequities and to meet the child care needs of parents working NTH schedules. Specifically, states have received short-term pandemic relief funds over the past year to stabilize and support child care, and conversations are underway that may lead to additional federal investments. Some steps states can take to better support parents working NTH schedules include the following:
- Assess all child care–related policy areas to ensure they reflect and support the complex and changing schedules of parents working NTH schedules and children’s unique developmental needs overnight and during evenings, early mornings, and weekends.
- Engage with parents working nontraditional hours and with providers meeting their needs to learn their preferences and to develop policies to support them better.
- Ensure child care subsidies from the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) are available and accessible to parents working nontraditional hours and the kinds of providers and settings they feel are best for their children, and ensure child care subsidy payments appropriately support NTH caregivers.
- Invest in efforts to increase NTH child care options, prioritizing relative and in-home caregivers, and explore supporting licensed programs extending operating hours earlier and later.
- Support children’s health and safety in appropriate ways when they’re being cared for by relatives and home-based providers who may not be subject to licensing rules. Incorporate parents’ and providers’ definitions of quality of care overnight and during evenings, mornings, and weekends into quality standards for the CCDF, licensing, and quality-improvement systems.
- Help parents find nontraditional child care by ensuring state child care websites include NTH care information. Provide parents a registry of individuals who have been screened and can provide nontraditional-hour care in the child’s home.
These are important steps toward a more equitable child care system that supports the needs of all working families as they try to ensure the well-being and healthy development of their children.
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