Choosing a daycare center for your child involves asking plenty of questions and being observant. Start your search about six months before you’ll need childcare (the best centers fill up fast), and use the following list of criteria as a guide. If you find a center that scores a perfect ten, you’ve found childcare gold.
Of course, that goal is pretty lofty; only about 7,000 centers have been accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) — the highest standard around — so you’ll have to decide what’s most important to you and choose from among your best options. “For us it was location, location, location,” says BabyCenter mom Laura Mason of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “We wanted a daycare within walking distance of work, since our son is breastfed and won’t take a bottle.”
A good reputation
A good daycare center should have a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and be known for its nurturing environment. Ask the center for names and numbers of current clients and call them for references, or stop by during afternoon pickup time and approach some other parents then. Also, be mindful of your first impression: In this case it counts a lot.
Bottom line: Unless parents you like and respect rave about it, the center’s probably not one you’ll like either.
Established ground rules
It’s important for a center to be flexible — letting you pick up and drop off your child at different times, for instance — but it should also have clearly established regulations for everything from operating hours to how to handle emergencies. The center should be able to supply you with a written copy of its policies. That way you know it takes its responsibility — your baby — seriously.
Along the same lines, look for a center with a strict sick-child policy. Find out which illnesses will keep your child home, and for how long. A tough policy may inconvenience you if your child is ill, but keeping sick children (and staff) away from the center makes sense. Good centers help cut down on illness by requiring all children and employees to have current immunizations and regular checkups.
If the center neither has an open-door policy nor encourages parents to stop by unannounced, chances are it has something to hide. Keep looking. A great daycare center will go beyond merely letting you in and invite you to become part of the center’s community by helping with activities, accompanying the children on field trips, and so on.
Bottom line: If a center is poorly organized or has lax or nonexistent rules, it’s not likely to be right for you.
A stimulating curriculum
The best daycare centers have structured schedules that include plenty of time for physical activity, quiet time (including daily reading sessions for groups and individuals), group programs, individual activities, meals, snacks, and free time.
TV and videos should play little or no part in what your child does all day; if videos are part of the curriculum, make sure they’re age-appropriate and, ideally, somewhat educational, teaching about animals, other cultures, and so on. A well-thought-out curriculum stimulates your child’s development and makes daily life more fun.
Look for a center with a wide range of age-appropriate toys that will encourage your child’s development and, as she gets older, stimulate creative, imaginative play. See our lists of the best toys for each age group.
Bottom line: Your child needs a place that offers a regular curriculum with a range of age-appropriate activities.