The NCSL Blog


By Shannon Saul

For most parents of infants and toddlers, the moments of joy—their child’s first smile or steps—are intertwined with the challenges of caring for a young child while balancing obligations outside the home such as work or school.

Dad with childWorking parents of infants and toddlers say caregivers whom they can trust to provide high-quality care are essential but also very hard to find and afford.

Researchers and economists validate these claims, and their concerns about the importance and shortage of high-quality care for infants and toddlers have been heard by legislators across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the child care situation, with growing concerns about the availability of child care as the economy reopens. Some states are taking action to address the impacts of COVID-19 on child care. 

Affordable Infant to Toddler Care: The Shortage Is Real

Parents of infants and toddlers face both a shortage of care providers and high costs. The average price of full-time, center-based care for one infant ranges from just over 7% to nearly 18% of the median income ($91,621) for a married couple with children. For single parents, paying for infant care can account for over 30% of household income. Only 4% of low-income families with infants and toddlers receive financial assistance through the Child Care and Development Fund, a federal block grant administered by states to improve quality and access to child care.

Without access to safe and stable child care, many parents are unable to work outside the home. This affects not only their financial stability but also affects employers, who lose an average of $13 billion each year in reduced revenue and extra recruitment costs. COVID-19 has complicated this further, as many essential workers struggle to find child care during this time.

The Colorado General Assembly enacted SB 063 in 2019, which requires an action plan to address the decline of family child care homes and available infant child care, make policy recommendations and estimate costs of implementation.

States are also addressing infant to toddler child care shortages by focusing on the challenges facing the care providers. While all child care professionals earn extremely low wages, those caring for infants and toddlers earn $4 less per hour on average than educators of older children and have higher turnover rates. To address low wages and retention rates, lawmakers in Nebraska and Louisiana approved tax credits for early childhood educators and providers that meet certain criteria. Arkansas, California, Indiana, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina offer higher payment rates for infant care to providers serving families receiving child care assistance than all other states.

According to the most recent Early Childhood Workforce Index, sustainable wages, paid planning and training time, a dependable schedule and benefits reduce caregiver turnover and increase the quality of care. In spite of the data, infant to toddler child care providers rarely have access to such supports. Only 13 states include paid time for professional development as a quality benchmark for center-based programs, and this number is even lower for home-based providers.

Oregon lawmakers ensured professional development and dependable income were built into 2019 legislation aimed at increasing the supply of infant to toddler child care for families whose incomes, at the time of enrollment, are at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines.

Quality Matters, and It’s in Short Supply

From birth to age 3, young children form more than 1 million new neural connections each second. Interactions with parents and caregivers during these years lay the foundation for their ability to learn and thrive later in life.

Research shows children in families with low incomes fall significantly behind in their development of language processing skills as early as age 2. Developmental delays at an early age can have long-term impacts on school readiness and can cost states more money in remedial education later in life. In 2014, Indiana spent almost $22 million for 4,500 children to repeat kindergarten because they were not ready for school.

Because infants and toddlers are always learning, their caregivers play a vital role in supporting their development and school readiness. Yet standard qualifications for infant-toddler child care providers are lower than all other child care workers. According to the upcoming 2020 State of Babies Yearbook, 45 states have no requirement for infant-toddler caregivers beyond a high school education.

States are taking steps to ensure infant-toddler care providers are supported, prepared and qualified.

Maine, New Mexico, New York and South Carolina have created core knowledge domains specific to infants and toddlers. Thirty states have created a credential specific to infant-toddler caregivers to ensure those entrusted with the well-being of young children are providing nurturing, high-quality care. North Carolina’s Child Care Services Association uses state funds to provide education-based wage supplements to infant-toddler caregivers.

As legislators look for ways to support working parents and foster healthy development of their youngest constituents, many are considering the needs and qualifications of their caregivers. Follow along to see how states address these issues with NCSL’s Early Care and Education Database.

This blog was made possible with funding from ZERO TO THREE as part of Think Babies, which was developed to make the potential of every baby a national priority. Funding partners for Think Babies include the Perigee Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the public education aspects of Think Babies. Learn more at


Shannon Saul is an intern in NCSL's Children and Families Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.