peer reviewed / This article examines what institutionalisation means for children under five, in two children’s residential care homes (casas cuna) in Mexico through the concepts of care and agency. It stems from the observation that there is little literature on this topic in general and on Mexico City, in particular. There is both a lack of empirical studies and of general and statistical data on children, families, homes, children’s institutional histories and staff. This paper aims to address this empirical gap by studying the daily lives of children. Based on five months of ethnographic fieldwork and using a reflexive critical anthropological approach, the interpersonal and material environments (“spaces”) in which care is given were analysed using Goffman’s “total institution”. To contrast these findings, I also examine childcare workers’ adjustments and further explore the “micro-agency” practiced by children through the example of clothing. These examples illustrate what my paper calls “counter-care”, considered as the children’s active, but often unrecognized, participation in their own care.