Choosing a childcare center can seem overwhelming, but it's a lot easier if you know what questions to ask. Sarah Greene, president and C.E.O. of the federally-funded National Head Start Association, a program that helps foster school readiness and healthy development for children that live in poverty, has the following advice:
* Visit the center. Talking to the director by phone isn't enough; it's important to visit the center to see what it's really like.
* Observe the teachers. Ideally, infants and toddlers remain with the same group of children and teachers all day. There should be a daily schedule, with low staff turnaround. Caregivers should respond to and interact with the infants.
* Check the infant-to-teacher ratio. A caregiver should not be responsible for more than four infants and toddlers. When you visit, ask if any babies are absent that day, and be sure to include them in your count.
* Sensory development should be encouraged. It sounds obvious, but promoting development should be a priority. Are infants moved from one area to another to change their perspective? Are toys rotated? Ask if there's a curriculum -- even young children can benefit from one.
* Watch for signs that motor skills are nurtured. There should be a variety of activities that encourage grasping, pulling, and pushing. There should also be opportunities to boost hand-eye coordination, such as fitting objects into a hole in a box and self-feeding.
* Breastfeeding should be supported. Any director will say that breastfeeding moms are welcome, but unless there is a designated quiet, comfortable, and private place for nursing, that doesn't mean much.
* Evaluate the indoor and outdoor environments. Inside, look for soft floor coverings, such as rugs and cushions. The babies should have ample open floor space and there should be areas of the room that serve different purposes. Are there low, open shelves that let children select their own playthings? Outside, look for a variety of surfaces, such as soil or sand for digging, small hills, grass, and paved areas for wheeled toys. There should be both sunny and shady areas (or portable shade equipment).
* Look for solid safety procedures. In the event of an emergency, each staff member should have an assigned role. Check that emergency phone numbers, along with parent contact information, are posted in an accessible place, such as by each phone. Ask how often they have unannounced evacuation drills. Other safety features to look for: Are infants put to sleep on their back? (See for yourself; don't just take their word for it.) Outdoor play areas should be fenced and secure. Inside, doors should be locked at all times; visitors should be granted admittance by staff. You'll want to ask how prospective employees are screened, and once hired, what training is required. For more details, visit www.nhsa.org.