Starting Your SearchMost communities have resource and referral agencies that provide lists of licensed childcare facilities. Child Care Aware, a national hotline, provides referrals to local resource agencies. Recommendations from fellow parents, friends, and co-workers are especially useful.
Childcare professionals advise parents to look for centers that have been licensed, although they also point out that a license is no guarantee of quality. Regulations  which generally cover such issues as health and safety, group size, maximum ratios of children to staff, and liability insurance  vary tremendously from state to state. And standards for family childcare are much less stringent than those for centers. "Most people would agree that licensing is baseline, the minimum standards to ensure health and safety of children. Parents should always try to find something better than the regulations," says Gina Adams, a childcare specialist at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, DC. Both the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association for Family Child Care offer lists of childcare facilities with standards beyond those required by state licensing.
Armed with a list of available sites, the next step is to study the options. Phone calls help in the prescreening process, but only on-site visits reveal the true flavor of the care being offered. "I walked into one center," says Danna Perlowski, a Dallas mother of a 7-month-old, "where it was too loud and there were toys strewn everywhere. I thought, 'I can walk away from this one.’" When Perlowski visited the center that she ultimately chose, it felt right immediately. "The caregivers had all been there for a long time," she says. "The place was calm and structured, and the caregivers seemed to know every baby’s personality and needs."
In the case of family care, experts advise making an appointment for a half-hour chat with the provider. Many centers host open houses, with particular times for tours. Visits are the perfect time to ask about the phasing-in process, feeding and napping schedules, attitudes about breastfeeding, how caregivers and parents communicate, and policies on unannounced visits by parents.
Parents should also question potential providers about their child-rearing philosophies. "Caregivers come from all different cultures," says Alison Clarke-Stewart, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Daycare. "They may not have the same attitudes as you about picking up a crying baby, for instance."