Melissa Newby, the founder of the online childcare directory Day Care Match, suggests you first determine what kind of program you want. Do you want a focus on learning or play? Do you want your child to be around other kids or do you prefer more individualized attention? Do you need child care near work or closer to home? It will be hard to continue your search until you've identified your needs and wants.
Most providers fall into one of these four categories:
Childcare centers: Groups of children are cared for in a facility designated for childcare. Childcare centers are licensed and inspected at least annually for training, health and safety standards. A typical childcare (daycare) center includes larger groups of children, multiple staff members and organized activities.
Family childcare: A provider cares for one child or a small number of children his or her own home. Licensing requirements vary from state to state and may depend on the number of children in the provider's care. Family childcare offers a home-like environment with a single caregiver, and may be less expensive and more flexible than daycare.
In-home caregivers: This may be a babysitter who comes to your home or a live-in nanny. Steve Swindell of Nanny Poppinz explains that families opt for in-home care to provide more individual attention and the security and comforts of home. And parents often feel more in control when childcare is provided in their home.
Care given by relatives/friends: This may includes neighbors, grandparents and other close acquaintances and may be provided in the child's or the caregiver's home. Some parents choose this option as a way to ensure family values and more loving care. This childcare option is typically the most affordable.
Ask around: Personal references from friends and family may offer the most reliable recommendations. Bragadoo.com and AngiesList.com are two helpful websites that links parents with childcare professionals that other local moms and dads have used.
You also might want to turn to the experts. ChildCare Aware provides contact information for local child care referral agencies. Simply call the ChildCareAware hotline (1-800-424-2246) or go online for childcare providers in your area.
Quality childcare providers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association of Family Child Care (NAFCC). Visit one or both of these sites to find high-quality caregivers. "If the center is NAEYC-accredited," says Jaynelle Oehler, executive director of Downtown Hampton Child Development Center in Virginia, "you can be confident that it meets very high standards on education and safety."
Learn all you can before entrusting your child to a care provider. If your child will be cared for outside your home, visit the facility. Is the environment warm, clean and safe? Sharon Martin of Handprints Learning Center suggests making an unannounced visit to get a feel for a typical day and observe other children. "If unscheduled visits are not allowed," says Martin, "find another center."
Whether care will be provided in or out of your home, it's important to interview the caregivers. Discuss the business arrangement, including costs, hours and sick policy. "Talk candidly with potential childcare providers to make sure their childcare views match yours," says Newby.
"Make a list of 10 things that are very important to you regarding the care of your child," suggests Martin, and have it ready when visiting or interviewing a provider. A reputable caregiver will willingly discuss these issues and more.
"Trust your instincts," recommends Kim Estes of Parent Education And Child Empowerment (P.E.A.C.E. of Mind). If you're not comfortable with the outcome of your visit or interview, move on to another provider.
"No childcare will care for your child exactly as you would," reminds Newby, "but choose one that most closely matches your parenting style and desires for your child."
With these tips and some dedication to the task, you can find a quality childcare arrangement that works for your child -- and for you.
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