In more than half of American families with children under the age of 18 both parents work outside the home. Given this statistic, it's no surprise that many of our children spend some time during their babyhood and young childhood with outside caregivers.
Parents in the market for childcare typically choose from three avenues: in-home care provided by a nanny, babysitter, neighbor, or relative; a home-based daycare center; or a childcare center. Your choice will be a matter of personal preference, affordability, and the availability of quality daycare in your area.
How to Find Daycare
If you know your little one will require daycare, it's never too early to launch your search. If you are pregnant, start in your second trimester; if you plan to return to work after an absence, start looking several months before your job starts.
Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find daycare. Also investigate churches, synagogues, YMCA's, and local social service agencies. Search the Web, scan bulletin boards at libraries and similar venues, and read the Yellow Pages.
Daycare can be expensive. High prices don't automatically translate into quality care. You must do your homework before deciding.
Once you have identified several possibilities (many parents visit as many as 10 to 12 centers), call and make appointments to visit, whether it's a center or an in-home business. This first visit may be a short one that involves no more than a quick walk-through.
When you investigate a center seriously -- you may have crossed several off your list after a brief visit or a quick drive-by -- make an appointment with the director. Bring your child and a list of questions with you.
Scoping Out the Center
Your child will spend many hours a day at the center. Take a look around and decide if the atmosphere is right. Is the noise level appropriate and happy? Are the bulletin boards or walls colorful and decorated with children's artwork or other appropriate art? Is the lighting good?
The physical plant is important. While children don't mind out-of-style or mismatched furniture, everything should be clean and well cared for. Is there a fenced outdoor space for daily play? Is there room for both active play and quiet time? Are the classrooms clean and organized for creative play? Are there plenty of toys, art supplies, and books?
Are the children happy, active, and well supervised? Do caregivers talk patiently and cheerfully to them? Are they immediately receptive to the children's questions and comments? Do the teachers get down to eye level when addressing the kids? Do they seem to enjoy the youngsters?
Both childcare centers and in-home daycares should be licensed. This means they meet certain safety and health regulations; it does not guarantee a good daycare. If the license is not posted, ask the director why not. If there is no license or if it's been suspended, you might want to look elsewhere.
Questions for the Caregiver and Director
Come armed with a list of questions when you visit the center, and plan to stay for at least an hour. Before making a final decision, try to find time for you and your child interact with the actual caregivers, not just the director.
You will have dozens of questions and don't hesitate to ask even one. Your child's care is very important! Add your own questions to this list.
How long have the caregivers (teachers) been working with children?
What kind of training do they have?
What is the ratio of caregiver to child? States regulate this but in general there should be at least one adult for every three to four infants, one for every four to six toddlers, and at least one for every nine to 10 preschoolers.
Does the center have references for the caregivers available? Can it provide a list of parents for reference?
What are the drop-off and pick-up procedures? Are parents encouraged to spend time at the center when they drop their children off?
What are the penalties for late pick up?
Are teachers available to discuss children at the beginning and end of the day? Don't expect full-blown conferences at these hectic times, but caregivers should be able to chat with parents about their child's day and bring up any concerns.
Are parents encouraged to drop in unannounced? (If not, look elsewhere.)
Does the center encourage parents to participate in its activities?
What are the disciplinary measures? These should be constructive and involve redirection, positive reinforcement, and time-outs.
Where and for how long do children nap?
If the center provides food, what is it? Is it healthful?
If the center allows television watching, for how long and what programs?
What are the policies regarding sick children?
What are the policies regarding medication?
What are the sanitary procedures at the center? These are most critical in the bathrooms, eating and food preparation areas, and diaper changing stations.
Finally, trust your instincts when choosing a center. Are you comfortable with the director and other adults? Does your child respond to their smiles? Do you feel a warmth and energy you like?
Nothing is irrevocable and you can always change centers or childcare options. But if you do your homework now, you will be reassured. Finding a good center where you feel your little one is lovingly cared for and treasured gives you enormous peace of mind.