When Stamford resident M.J. Golias gave birth to her son last summer, she took a yearlong leave from her teaching job in New York City. But as the end of her leave approached, and she and her husband searched for child care options for their son, who is now 13 months old, she realized the high cost of day care, coupled with commuting to Manhattan meant heading back to work would actually cost her too much money.

"I guess it was just that the money just was not worth it. It wasn't worth having someone else raise my child," Golias said last week. "When you think how much the cost of quality day care or a quality nanny is, you say to yourself, `Is the salary you're bringing in really worth it?' "

In her case, she said it wasn't, after turning up day care options priced between $1,800 and $2,100 a month. So instead of sending her son to a day care center for 40-some hours a week, she decided she'll stay home.

It may sound like an exaggeration, but the cost of placing one infant or toddler in a day care center here in southwestern Connecticut is so expensive that it actually exceeds the cost of a year's tuition at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Child Care Aware of America, which is the nation's leading voice on child care issues, reported that the cost of sending one infant to a day care at a child care center came to $12,844 in 2011 -- 39 percent higher than the $9,256 tuition charged at UConn for the upcoming 2013-14 school year.

In southwestern Connecticut, the difference is even more significant, with an average cost of $311 a week, or $16,182 a year, according to the Child Care Aware's senior policy adviser, Michelle McCready.

"Connecticut is one of the 35 states where the average cost for an infant in center-based care was higher than a year's tuition for public college," McCready said. "But you can't plan for an infant's care the way you plan for college. You don't put money aside in a 529 (fund) for years and years and years like you do for college."

Across the state, families are spending 15 percent of their incomes to place an infant in child care, according to 2-1-1 Child Care, a resource and referral service powered by the United Way of Connecticut. That's significantly higher than the 10 percent recommendation issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And that's just for one child; the cost of placing an infant and an older

pre-school-aged child in a day care center tips the scale up to 27 percent, exceeding the median annual rent payment in the state, 2-1-1 Child Care reports.

That kind of financial burden can take a toll on people -- like James Dannucci in New Fairfield, who lives with his wife and his daughters, who are 8 and 7. Back when his children were younger, Dannucci emptied out his retirement fund to help pay the day care bills.

When his first daughter, Mia, was born in 2005, Dannucci's wife took a year off from her job as a teacher in Danbury. After that, Mia went off to day care and her new little sister Remy, who turned 7 on Wednesday, arrived shortly thereafter. When Remy started attending day care with her older sister, the Dannuccis' bill almost doubled -- their day care center did give them a 10 percent discount for having more than one child enrolled -- and "day care bills were pushing 13, 14, 15, 16 hundred a month," said Dannucci, who likened the cost to another mortgage payment.

"I think I calculated it to a little over $50,000 over the five years that we were battling with the system," he said.

"We finished that up and they're in school now," he said. "Believe it or not, we're looking into going into 2014 now, and just in the past year we have kind of dug ourselves out of the hole that whole situation kind of threw us in."

As he gets closer to the end of the tunnel, Dannucci said, he is hoping to begin contributing to the children's 529 college plans again after having to take a couple years off from the savings accounts to pay off the day care debt.

While day care costs do vary significantly from town to town -- from $11,816 a year for an infant or toddler in Bridgeport to $14,747 in Bethel, and $11,310 in Naugatuck to $18,200 in New Canaan -- they are a problem for the whole state.

As a whole, Connecticut is ranked as the 23rd most expensive state in the nation for families placing an infant in a child care center. While Massachusetts tops the list at $14,980 a year, Connecticut comes in at $12,844. Mississippi is the most affordable in the nation, at $4,591 per year, according to Child Care Aware of America.

But the burden is perhaps biggest here, with southwestern Connecticut's average cost of more than $16,000 a year "exceeding that of any state in the nation," according to McCready.

"Stamford is a perfect example of a place with a very high cost, compared to the income of families," said Sherri Sutera, senior vice president for child care services at 2-1-1 Child Care.

"Stamford has an affluent area and a not-so-affluent area, and there are also a lot of center-based programs there that cater to people who work there in the corporations and professionals who can afford that," she said. "But if I am a parent who works in an entry-level job or in the service industry, that parent is certainly not going to be able to afford that center."

Sutera's organization reports that the average annual cost of placing an infant in a child care center in Stamford racks up to $18,727 a year, which is the equivalent of 20.8 percent of the median Stamford family's income. Tack on a second child between the ages of 3 and 5, and the price tag goes up by another $13,774 -- accounting for 36 percent of the average Stamford family's annual income.

It's enough to push some families to seek alternate arrangements. For example, Darien resident Nancy Nessel has tried numerous options to balance family and work life since having her first child 13 years ago. She has employed nannies, taken leaves from work, switched from full time to part time, and now writes her own marketing blog about "Gen Z" -- her children's generation.

"I'd like to work in an office again, but I would really have to find a nanny who I trust driving," said Nessel, whose children are now 13 and 10, and spend the majority of their day in school. But when the bell rings at 2:50 p.m., they need a pick-up in one place and a drop-off in another to keep them engaged in activities, since Nessel said there is a lack of steady day care options in her town.

And nannies aren't cheap.

"It used to be like $10 or $12 an hour, but that's really skyrocketed," she said, noting that the mothers she knows spend about $20 an hour -- roughly $800 a week -- on nannies. "That's not encouraging women to return to work. It's really a dilemma."

McCready, from Child Care Aware of America, calls it a "child care crisis." But while it may take some new parents by surprise, it isn't exactly sneaking up on the nation; the costs have been trending upward for a quarter-century.

"The payments people are making for child care have almost doubled, between 1985 and 2011," said Lynda Laughlin, author of an April report by the U.S. Census Bureau that explored the cost of child care.

Back in 1985, families with employed mothers spent $84 a week on child care in 2011 dollars; by 2011, the price was up to $143, according to Laughlin's paper.

"I don't think it was that bad when I was a kid," Dannucci said. "I just don't remember it being that difficult when I was a kid."

maggie.gordon@scni.com; 203-964-2229; http://twitter.com/MagEGordon; http://facebook.com/TrendingWithMaggieGordon