Choosing a day care is no small feat; after all, this place is going to be a huge part of your kid’s life (they may even spend more waking hours there than they do at home). So choosing a childcare facility requires a great deal of thought — and shouldn't be rushed into.
In fact, the earlier you start your search, the better, particularly if you live in a big city where day care slots fill up fast. Try to start the process six months before you want your child to start at day care.
It might seem like a daunting process, especially if this is your first foray into the world of day care, but if you’re well prepared, you’ll feel more in control — and better equipped to make the right decision for your child.
Ask for recommendations
Often, nothing beats a personal reference. If you have friends, relatives or neighbors with kids at day care, ask about their experience. If you need expert help, phone the Child Care Aware hotline (800-424-2246) and ask for the number of your local childcare resource and referral agency, which, in turn, can refer you to licensed centers and home day cares in your area. Ask for a list of accredited centers in your area, and make sure you put centers with the stamp of approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association for Family Child Care at the top of your list. Accreditation isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a good starting point.
Make a shortlist of “maybes”
Your shortlist can be as long as you like — depending on how much time you have to devote to the process. To narrow your options, parent educator Susan Santoro, who used to teach training courses for childcare providers, recommends choosing facilities that are located near your home or work. “If you are the primary parent dropping off and picking up at childcare, choose a location close to your work,” she tells SheKnows. “This allows you to spend travel time with your children each day and rush to childcare quickly if there's an emergency. Also, you're less like to be late for pickup due to traffic, and you may be able to spend some lunches with your child.”
Tick off the basics
According to Santoro (and also common sense), your chosen childcare facility should meet certain basic requirements. It should be licensed by the county or state, have a low child-to-adult ratio, be clean and well-lit, and employ staff that are enthusiastic and welcoming to both you and your child.
Every day care facility should also comply with your state’s minimum standards for childcare centers, former day care director Cherrye S. Vasquez explains to SheKnows. Specific rules and regulations vary by state, but they all cover indoor and outdoor specifications for the building, playground safety, meal preparation and child safety.
Watch the children
During your day care visit, take a moment to observe the kids. Are they clean, comfortable and happy? While it’s easy for day care staff to be on their best behavior in the presence of visiting parents, it’s pretty hard to persuade young kids to pretend to be happy when they’re not. How the kids interact with staff can help put your mind at ease — or trigger an alarm bell.
Ask (lots of) questions
Your child’s age, personality and any particular needs should influence the questions you ask on a day care visit, but it makes sense to arm yourself with a list of basic questions to help you compare what different facilities offer.
Jaclyn Carnazza, owner of Kids Connect in Montville, New Jersey, recommends asking the following questions on a day care visit.
- Does the center use a research-based curriculum that is appropriate for both infants/toddlers and preschool kids? Daily activities should include reading, playing, singing and crafts. Toys should be engaging and safe (i.e., no choking hazards).
- How does the program share information about activities and lessons being taught in the center so parents can reinforce learning at home?
- What is the education level of the staff?
- Is there regular communication between the staff and parents? If so, how is the information communicated (email, text, phone calls, etc.)?
- What measures does the school take to provide a safe and secure environment? Look for gates at stairways, guards on windows, clearly marked safety exits and accessible fire extinguishers, and ask what the procedure is for guests arriving at the day care.
- Can warm and positive teacher-child interactions and conversations be observed in the center?
- How are the children grouped together if the center provides for varying ages? You’ll want your child to have kids the same age to befriend. Also, young infants should be kept separate from older toddlers and kids, primarily as a safety precaution, as older kids often don’t understand how gentle they need to be with infants.
- Are the staff and children washing their hands before meals and after diapering? What other cleaning and hygiene practices are in place for the food preparation area, the washrooms and the diaper area?
- Are opportunities provided throughout the year for parent/family engagement?
- How many staff members have received cardio pulmonary resuscitation and first-aid training?
Policies, curriculum and questions aside, you have to trust your gut when it comes to choosing the right day care provider for your child. No matter how impressive a day care is when it comes to accreditation or compliance, if the philosophy on discipline is worlds apart from yours, it’s the wrong place for your child.
Take your time, and don’t be scared to go back for a second visit — or to ask more questions. A good provider will appreciate your questions and welcome the opportunity to put your mind at ease.