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About 12.5 million children under age six require child care each year so that their parent or parents can work, according to Child Care Aware's "Checking in on the Childcare Landscape 2019 State Fact Sheets." The child day-care services industry employs about 902,070 wage-earners as of May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of these, 448,460 were educators of some kind, including preschool teachers; 304,180 provided personal care or service for children, including supervision of child-care workers; 48,370 were in managerial occupations; 32,080 were in office or administrative support occupations; and 23,720 worked in food preparation or service.

Paid child care has become such a large industry because so many parents are working. From 2017 to 2018, the number of families with children under age six increased from 13.99 million to 14.25 million, according to the BLS. Both parents were employed in about 57.5 percent of these families.

Child care involves meeting many needs: organizing play activities and outings; providing intellectual stimulation such as language activities; disciplining; and sometimes meal planning and preparation, transportation, or (mainly in home-care settings) laundry and clothing care.

Child-care businesses are generally divided into three types: family care, which is provided in the homes of other mothers; home care, which takes place in the child's home; and center-based day care.

Day-care centers are housed in numerous settings, such as office parks, shopping centers, and churches. Large employers house them in order to be family-friendly, and churches find them a useful way to generate revenue from Sunday school facilities that otherwise would be vacant six days out of the week. Some retail stores and gyms offer short-term child care to patrons. Many schools offer day care for the few morning or afternoon hours in which the school day and the parents' workday do not overlap.

Regulation of the industry varies from state to state but may set limits on the child-to-adult ratio, require that care providers meet certain standards, and mandate routine inspections of facilities for their safety and sanitation. It is partly because of these regulations that franchise businesses, some of them very large enterprises, have been successful in this industry. Parents tend to trust that a franchised business will meet or exceed the standards mandated by regulations, and economies of scale may give these businesses an advantage in doing so. Franchised businesses also are expected to be well insured against liability, which makes them attractive to employers that want to house a day-care center for their workers.