Finding Child Care during a Shortage

By Ren Johns, founder of PDX Waitlist

So now that you’re up to speed on the surging demand for child care and our extremely limited supply (if not, check out Part I of this series!), let’s talk about what you can do about it. Here are some steps to consider:

Investigate in-home (also called family) child care

There are two major types of child cares, center-based and in-home care. Many families are wary about in-home care because they aren’t sure it’s safe, but licensing protocols for in-homes are very detailed and regulators complete an unscheduled visit at least once a year. 

There are more in-home providers than centers and many great ones are under the radar of most parents, so they often have shorter (or zero) waitlists. If you’re looking for care for kids under 2 (considered an infant under regulations), in-home child care may be your main option since not all child care centers take babies and those that do only have a few infant rooms which give priority to the siblings of all the other children already at their site. 

Figure out your must-haves & don’t limit options too early!

Finding child care is a volume game — you want to build the largest possible list to check availability. I typically recommend starting with 20 to 40 providers you will contact to see if they have openings. Pro tip: Don’t narrow that list too early — use your criteria for age, budget and hours initially. Once you know who on that list actually has openings, you can use your other preferences to further winnow the pool. Here are a few ways to give yourself more options in that first cut: 

  • Expand your geography. If you are willing to consider at least three zip codes within a 15 to 20 minute commute from you, that often helps your odds considerably. I use this website and Google to give me a rough idea of zip codes. If you’re using public transit for drop-off, can you consider other zip codes along your route as well? 
  • Look to the suburbs and downtown. Wherever real estate is cheaper, there is generally more child care, especially in-home care. The exception I’m finding during COVID is child care in business districts — with so many folks working from home you might be able to find a spot at a center that usually caters to large office buildings nearby. Pro tip: This window of downtown availability is closing fast!
  • Check out programs outside of your preferred “philosophy.” Child cares have their own unique flavors but the big indicators of quality — a clean safe environment, developmentally-appropriate materials and curriculum, positive and meaningful adult-child interactions, and attention to children’s social-emotional development (this link from Arizona’s Quality First initiative has great videos to show what that looks like!) — should be present regardless. Focus on those indicators instead of what “brand name” the program has and you will open up your search. 
  • Be on the lookout for new locations. New locations mean more openings without long waitlists or those pesky siblings taking up all the spots. I share this kind of information with the families I’m coaching to find child care in my Raising Kids Together community, but you could also find this out by asking around to families you know with kids in care to see if their providers have any expansions planned.
  • Keep an open mind about things like websites and response times. This seems odd to say in 2021, but many small child cares that are solid providers don’t have websites. With all their additional responsibilities related to COVID, they also are even slower at getting back to folks these days than normal. That’s just par for the course. Two pro tips: I always suggest calling or emailing between 1 and 3 pm (when kids nap!). And they definitely take note of snarky emails, so be courteous and respectful. 

If you need more help, reach out — I know how stressful it is to feel stuck looking for child care and I’m happy to support you however I can! 

Ren Johns is a mom of two young kids in NE Portland. She founded PDX Waitlist out of her frustration at how difficult it was to find care for her first child, and now guides families throughout the city through her membership program on finding child care. You can get in touch with her at

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