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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

IEL FAQ: What Child Care Options Are Available in Illinois? About

Although a few families can rely on help from grandma or grandpa, or aunt or uncle, many families must rely on non-relative child care in order to go to work or school. Parents may have many or few child care options available to them depending on the age of their child, programs available in their community, and the hours, location, or costs of care. This FAQ describes the basic child care options available to families in Illinois.

Child Care Centers

Child care centers provide care for groups of children in a range of settings including Head Start, state-funded prekindergarten, independent preschool programs, and park and recreational programs. Child care centers can be a reliable form of care, typically operating all year long and providing substitutes for staff illnesses and vacations. Center program staff and directors are required to have education and annual training in child development. Center programs may also have opportunities for parents to get involved in curriculum planning and policy making. Child care centers often offer additional services such as field trips, health screening, and music, dance, or gymnastic instruction.

The disadvantages of the center option include the inflexibility of hours. Center programs typically offer care between 7:00 am and 5:30 pm Monday through Friday. Center programs provide care for larger groups of children and may be less able to accommodate individual needs, routines, and interests. Children in center programs may have limited opportunity to interact with children of varying ages and often must adapt to multiple adult caregivers.

The Illinois Department of Children and Families Services (DCFS) licenses child care programs to insure that health, safety, space, and staffing requirements are met. Some child care centers are not required to be licensed by DCFS, including those affiliated with churches, public schools, hospitals, and universities.

DCFS requires the following child-to-staff ratios in licensed child care centers:

Age of Child Child to Adult Ratio
6 weeks*–15 months 4:1
15 months-2 years 5:1
2-3 years 8:1
3-4 years 10:1
5 years and up 20:1

*Children must be at least 6 weeks old to be enrolled in child care.

Family Child Care

Family child care is provided in a home other than the child’s own home. Advantages of family child care include its smaller, home-like setting with one consistent adult, greater flexibility in hours (it is more common to find family child care provided during early or late hours, evenings, or on the weekend), fewer children, and less structure. Family child care homes more easily provide opportunities for children to learn about real-life activities such as cooking and gardening. Because most family child care providers care for a mixed-age group, siblings can be cared for together and children have opportunities to interact with children of other ages.

Disadvantages of family child care may include its lack of reliability (often no substitute is available when the caregiver is ill or on vacation). Family child care providers’ education and experience in child development can be variable because the requirements to be a licensed family child care provider are minimal and there are no qualifications required to run a license-exempt family child care home.

Three types of family child care programs are common in Illinois—licensed homes, group homes, and license-exempt homes.

Licensed Homes. Licensed family child care providers may care for up to eight children, including their own children under 12 years of age, with the following limits):

  • no more than five children under 5 years of age and no more than three children under 24 months;
  • no more than six children under 5 years of age and no more than two under 30 months;
  • up to eight school-age children;
  • with a part-time assistant, up to four additional school-age children with a maximum of 12 children total; or
  • with a full-time assistant, up to eight children under 5 years with no more than five children under 24 months.

Licensed Group Homes. Licensed group home providers may care for 12 or more children with a full-time qualified assistant with the following limits:

  • up to 12 children under 6 years, with no more than six children under 30 months and no more than four children under 15 months, or up to 12 children between 3 and 6 years old;
  • up to 12 children between 3 and 5 years of age;
  • with an additional part-time assistant, four additional school-age children;
  • with no assistants, up to eight children under 12 years with no more than five children under 5 years old and no more than three children under 24 months; or up to eight children under 5 years old, with none under 3 years old; or up to 12 school-age children.

License-Exempt Homes. License-exempt home providers care for three or fewer children, or children from one family, or children related to the provider.

In-Home Care

In-home care takes place in the child’s own home. This type of care is not regulated by DCFS. The advantage to in-home care is the convenience to parents and the minimal disruption to the child. Parents have a high degree of control over what the child eats, which toys are provided, and the availability of television, videos, and computer games. Parents don’t need to find alternative care when their child is sick.

Disadvantages to in-home care include its cost (it is generally the most expense of all arrangements); the difficulty in finding a qualified caregiver; the loss of family privacy; the legal, financial, and other requirements of the parents as employers; and the lack of social interaction opportunities for the child and caregiver.

Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies

After reviewing the available child care options, parents can consider the best fit for their child and family. Child Care Resource & Referral agencies (CCR&Rs) can provide detailed information about child care programs in particular communities in Illinois. CCR&Rs can notify parents of their eligibility for free or subsidized child care programs. CCR&Rs can also help parents understand relevant licensing regulations and can assist parents in assessing the quality of a child care environment. The influence of high-quality child care on young children is an important issue in choosing a child care situation; however, that topic is outside the scope of this FAQ. In addition to the technical assistance that parents can receive from their local CCR&R. Parents can find their local CCR&R at the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies Web site.


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The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.

The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.