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Nearly 11 million children under age five require child care each year so that their parent or parents can work, according to Child Care Aware's "Child Care in America 2015 State Fact Sheets." About one-third of these children are cared for in day-care centers, nurseries, preschools, or other child-care programs. The child day-care services industry employs about 813,540 wage-earners as of May 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of these, 364,850 were educators of some kind, including preschool teachers; 311,630 provided personal care or service for children, including supervision of child-care workers; 41,050 were in managerial occupations; 30,510 were in office or administrative support occupations; and 23,750 worked in food preparation or service.

Paid child care has become such a large industry because so many parents are working. Among married couples who both are employed, 35 percent live with children under 12; and among single parents who are employed, 79 percent of women and 68 percent of men live with children under 12. Currently, 44 percent of new mothers return to work within the first year after giving birth, 64 percent within six months.

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.