When to begin?
In a word — early. Popular programs fill up fast. “Most program directors will talk to you as soon as you're pregnant,” says Linda Hassan Anderson, a senior director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Don't be discouraged by waiting lists, says Ashley Murphree, founder of Carpe Diem Private Preschools in the Dallas metro area. “If you really like a place, put your name down,” she says. “People relocate, lose jobs and change their minds about child care. You may quickly move to the top of the list.” If possible, take off work and tour all the options on your list in one day — it'll be easier to compare those vital first impressions.
Home-Care Versus Center-Care?
This is a biggie. Some parents are more comfortable with daycare run out of a home; it can feel more personal with fewer children and employees. Also, caregivers may be more flexible with pickup times, evening or weekend hours, and may even accept payment only for days when baby attends. On the flip side, there's less back-up with family-style care; larger daycare centers have a bigger pool of subs and are more likely to have staffers trained in child development. Bigger centers also have the resources to offer extras like music and art. No matter what type of daycare you choose, do make sure it's properly licensed.
Licensed: Meets your state’s minimum health and safety standards (nrckids.org for each state’s minimum requirements), such as:
- Trash must be removed once a day
- No smoking in child-care area
- First-aid kit in child-care center
- Regular developmental assessments
- Sign-language class in infant room
- Activity centers to fine-tune motor skills
Will My Baby be Safe?
She'll be crawling before you know it. Look for gates, covered outlets, and latches on cabinets; easy-to-find emergency numbers (fire, poison control); age-appropriate toys; surfaces that are disinfected regularly. Watch for red flags that show the daycare isn't current on safety standards, such as drop-side cribs or baby walkers with wheels. Once you're secure with the environment, think bigger picture: You'll want to make sure that the doors are locked and all entries are monitored. Speaking of which, all center employees should wear some type of ID, and there should be a list of approved pickups.
What Will It Cost?
Fees vary greatly, but infant and toddler care is generally more expensive because of lower child-to-caregiver ratios. Center-based care — with higher overhead including salaries, benefits, curriculum, equipment, materials and facilities — costs 21 percent to 46 percent more than home care.
What Vibe Do You Get from the Staff?
Stephanie Burchett, a Chippewa, Pennsylvania, mom and former daycare worker, says you can learn a lot by observing staffers: Are they gentle and nurturing? Do they respond quickly to crying? “When you visit, don't just follow the director on the tour,” she says. “Stop and talk to the staff. Approach each one as a potential new friend to see if they'll actually communicate with you, as opposed to just giving canned answers.” Hang out in the lobby and watch interactions between the staff and children.
What's the Baby-to-Caregiver Ratio?
To thrive, babies need lots of one-on-one attention — being held, talked to and rocked. That means a maximum of three or four babies per caregiver, says Anderson; for toddlers, no more than five or six. Though numbers are mandated by each state, better facilities often stick to a lower ratio for optimum care, Anderson adds.
What are the Care-Givers' Credentials?
The more early childhood education and experience, the better — but staying up-to-date is also important, says Murphree. Ask about professional development opportunities for the staff. “Are they encouraged or required to take classes to st ay current?” she adds. About 75 percent of teachers at schools accredited by the NAYEC, for instance, have a minimum of a CDA (Child Development Associate) credential; some have bachelor's degrees and years of experience in the field.
… and How about the Turnover Rate?
Daycare centers have a notoriously high staff turnover rate — around 30 percent is average — due to low pay, lack of benefits, and the physical and emotional demands of child care. Babies thrive in a stable, nurturing environment, so look for a place where employees stick around. To encourage staffers to stay, a good daycare treats them well — so ask about employee benefits, if there's a staff room for breaks, and how much time off they get — that sort of thing. Whether it's a center or home daycare, a place with lots of long-timers is a good sign that it's a great environment.
Can We …?
… cloth diaper? Visit for lunchtime breastfeeding sessions? Bring a lovey? Ask if special requests are doable. “When Kyin started eating finger food, we wanted to bring in healthier options than what was listed on the snack menu,” says Stacey Hilton of Raleigh, North Carolina. “Not all daycares would allow that, but ours did, and it was important to know that up front.”
Is there a Separate Area for Babies?
Babies should never be grouped with older children, says Carol McNally, director of the Jewish Community Center's Richard Adler Early Childhood Learning Center in Maitland, Florida. Little ones can get stepped on, pushed or even bitten by active toddlers. The infant room should also be equipped with cribs, changing tables, a refrigerator, and rocking chairs for nursing moms or caregivers who need to feed or soothe a crying baby. Watch out for overreliance on devices such as swings, cribs and bouncy chairs, advises McNally. “Look for plenty of supervised tummy time.”
Is It Open When I Need It?
Double-check that the center's hours fit your schedule — you'll be scrambling for additional child care if they don't. Plus, centers usually charge by-the-minute fees for late pickups. Don't forget to ask about holidays too. “We discovered many places follow public school closings,” says Mary Scarpelli of Brooklyn, mom of 2 1/2-year-old Sienna. “It was important for us to find a place open all year round, with closures only on major holidays.” Home-based care may be more flexible, but ask the owner about her policy on extra hours.
What Transitions are in Store?
Change is tough for babies and toddlers, so it's good to have a heads-up on all major transitions. At a center, for instance, you'll want to know when children move out of the baby room into a toddler area. At a family daycare, you might ask what happens if the owner is sick — or takes a vacation. Consistency of care is huge, says Anderson. “It's extremely important for infants to have continuity in their daycare relationships,” she says. “You want your child to develop that trusting relationship, and know there's a primary caregiver, no matter what kind of daycare you choose.”
What's the Sick Child Policy?
Will you need to keep your little one home if she has a sniffle? How about a cough? Will the center contact you during the day if she spikes a fever? Know that you'll have to come up with a Plan B on mornings when daycare isn't an option.
How Do Staff Communicate with Parents?
The more information flowing between you and the daycare, the better — phone calls, e-mails, texts and newsletters. (Some daycares even offer webcam service.) At minimum, you should get a rundown of diaper changes, fee dings and naps. Good caregivers will want info from you, adds Anderson: “Expect questions such as: ‘How was the baby last night? Did he sleep? When did he eat?'”
When are Parents Allowed to Visit?
Family should feel welcome at all times — period. Be wary of any program or family care provider who discourages unscheduled visits. “Go back and visit as many times as you want before you commit,” says Anderson. “A good program will welcome that.” Sit in the lobby and watch for a while to get a feel for how things run, suggests McNally. “You'll see a lot of coming and going, a lot of parent and staff interactions.”
What are Other Parents Saying?
Ask co-workers and friends for recommendations — especially those who share your basic parenting approach. Network with parents at daycares you're considering. “Approach them at pickup time — not in front of the teachers,” says Hilton. “See if they'll chat with you for a bit about how they feel about the daycare.”
What Does Your Gut Say?
So you found a daycare with a great reputation, terrific teachers and a state-of-the-art facility — but you just can't picture your baby there. Bottom line: You need to trust your instincts, says Murphree. “If you can't overcome a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, it's not the place for you.”