SEBRING — On a waiting list Sebring’s First Baptist Church Preschool keeps of children needing care are 20 to 25 names of infants, waiting for a spot to open up. One of these, said the center’s director Dixie Kreulen, is five months away from being born. As soon as mothers find out they are pregnant, they get their baby’s name on the tight infant waiting list so they have a good shot at a slot opening when the birth actually takes place and it’s time for them to go back to work. “We know about the pregnancy before the family knows,” Kreulen said.
Over at Lil Wizards Academy, owner James Box says he’s “swamped” with babies and requests from parents of infants needing care. He can take in 12 infants below the age of 1 and is deliberating converting a building into either an infant care center or for after-schoolers, but hasn’t made up his mind. Should Box go for the little ones, he knows he’ll be fulfilling a great need in the community for infant day care. Of all childcare needs in Highlands County, infant care is probably the hardest to come by. Many day cares don’t take children younger than 1 year of age. According to a search on the Florida Department of Children and Families’ web site, there are 15 childcare centers in Highlands County offering care to babies below the age of 1. This list does not include home-based care. Infant day cares typically don’t take babies younger than six weeks old. Three of the infant care providers are Redland Christian Migrant Association’s Child Development Centers in Avon Park, Sebring and Lake Placid. RCMA family support worker Katrina Caldwell thinks there has always been a shortage of infant childcare in Highlands County. “Infant child care is definitely an issue,” she said. Kreulen says the cost of maintaining an infant room is the biggest reason. The state requires at least one teacher to four babies. That same ratio jumps up to 6:1 for 18-month-olds and 11:1 for 27-month-olds. Not only do childcare centers have to hire more caregivers, they have to furnish the room with a crib for each baby, high chairs, bouncy chairs and have to follow space mandates, which dictates how many children they can serve based on their space available. “It’s hard to staff...there is extra liability,” she said. Parents are acutely aware of this. Pauline Chung said it’s “very hard and expensive to find childcare for kids under the age of one. You then have to try private home care and there are no guarantees they are safe.” Megan Mahoney agrees. “It’s so hard to find a day care especially in Lake Placid,” Mahoney said. She is on the waiting list at the only two places that accept infants in Lake Placid and she signed up before her son was born. “It’s hard especially since I work full time and go to school,” Mahoney said. Ian Belanger said they chose private care until this year. “We were on a waiting list at a pretty large center, and when a ‘spot’ came up six months before our first was born, they requested that we start paying full price six months early to hold his spot - I think not,” Belanger said. What this means is that working parents have to rope in a family member to help, find a baby-sitter, seriously consider staying at home until the baby is older or look for part-time employment. Cost is another factor that could strap parents of newborns looking for childcare. It typically costs more than $120 a week for a newborn baby, and some parents have to seriously weigh whether it is more cost-effective to just stay at home, Kreulen said.