Daycare 101: How to Choose the Best Facility for Your Family

If you’re going back to work and considering putting your baby in daycare, here’s what you need to know — from benefits and downsides to the questions you should ask and what to look for in a facility.

If the thought of leaving your baby with someone else all day, every work day, makes you want to never leave your baby at all, you’re not alone. It’s a big decision, especially if this is your first baby. But if you’re planning to go back to your 9-to-5, you’re in good company: According to some estimates, more than 70 percent of all moms work outside the home. And that also means there are plenty of excellent child care options, from nannies to babysitters and more. One of your best options is daycare, either through a group center or home daycare. Many centers offer exceptional care with licensed, trained caregivers in an environment where your little one will get valuable socialization with other kids her age. Here’s what you need to know about day care, from the benefits and downsides to questions to ask potential providers and what to look for when you visit a daycare facility.

Types of Daycare Facilities

A daycare is a facility where parents drop children off, usually for a full day, with other kids of varying ages.  You have a couple of options:

  • Group Daycare: These facilities are state-licensed and are usually run similarly to a school, with kids of varying ages cared for in groups. Some of these are run by employers themselves. If you choose this option, you’re in good company: More than a quarter of infants and toddlers are in center-based care.
  • Home Daycare: This childcare is run out of the provider’s home, often as she cares for her own children at the same time. While some home daycare providers have received training and are state-licensed, many are not.

Benefits of Daycare

A good daycare program can offer some significant advantages:

  • Continuous care: Most child care centers offer care from the early months of infancy through toddlerhood, and sometimes even beyond.
  • Education: A well-organized program is geared to your tot’s development and growth.
  • Socialization: Your baby will get lots of face time with other little ones.
  • Cost: If you’re planning to go back to work and need someone to watch after your child while you’re away, daycare tends to be less expensive than hiring a nanny.
  • Reliability: Most centers stay open for about 12 hours to support a variety of parent schedules.
  • Specific to group daycare: Staff is trained and licensed. And because there’s more than one caregiver, there’s always a sub.
  • Specific to home daycare: There are fewer children than you’d find at a group daycare center — which may mean more personal attention and less exposure to illness.

RELATED: Childcare Options: Benefits, Downsides & Costs

Downsides to Daycare

There are some drawbacks to putting your baby in daycare, including:

  • Cost: While daycare centers are less expensive than private child care, it’s still pricey unless it’s subsidized by the government or your company.
  • Exposure to illnesses: Because they’re exposed to more kids, babies may get sick more often than those in another childcare setting — though that is just a precursor of what’s to come in preschool. In fact, early germ exposure can actually toughen up baby’s immune system (which may mean fewer colds and infections later on in childhood).
  • Specific to group daycare: There may be less flexibility in scheduling than in a more informal setting, and the center may be closed on holidays when you’re working if it follows a public school calendar.
  • Specific to home daycare: Some providers (like those run by religious organizations) are unlicensed and don’t need to have childcare training — which means they aren’t regularly inspected for quality and may not have to abide by group size, child-to-caregiver ratios, activities and materials. And if the infant caregiver (or one of her kids) is sick, there’s usually no backup caregiver at the ready, so you’ll need an on-call sitter (or a very understanding boss).

5 Steps to Choosing Your Daycare

Depending on where you live, you many need to leave yourself a little more time to find a daycare. It’s a good idea to start looking at least two months before you plan to go back to work; if you live in a big city you might even want to start checking out your options before your baby even arrives. Here are a few steps to take:

  1. Do your research. Get recommendations from other parents (at work and among friends) and your pediatrician.If you don’t know other parents, consider asking those you meet in your OB-GYN or pediatrician’s waiting room, the playground or a mommy-and-me class. You can also check online resources for childcare referral services or with the state regulatory agency.
  2. Interview centers. Screen centers and in-home daycare providers over the phone (see questions below). If the center’s hours are inconvenient or the staff isn’t forthcoming, scratch it off the list of places to visit.
  3. Check the center out in person. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, visit in person and see if it checks off all the basics (again, see below). Then trust your gut: If something doesn’t seem right to you, it probably isn’t right for your baby, either.
  4. Check references. Take the time to call former and current clients to find out how happy they and their kids are with their experience. As tempting as it is to rely on the glowing letters of recommendation that providers may supply, don’t. Letters are easily edited (or even forged).
  5. Drop by unannounced. Before you make your final choice, consider stopping by unexpectedly on another day to get a truer picture of what the group daycare center is like when the staff hasn’t been prepped. If the center doesn’t allow unscheduled visits of any kind, you may want to cross it off your list.

Screening Questions for Your Daycare

Once you’ve got a few options in mind from your pediatrician and other references, get a feel for the places you’re considering over the phone by asking:

  • What’s your cost (tuition and application fee) and schedule? If these answers are way out of line with your budget or schedule, it’s an easy way to eliminate a provider from your list.
  • Is there a waiting list? Some daycares, especially for infants and younger babies in larger cities, have long waiting lists (the better to start looking earlier).
  • What’s your accreditation? While a state license can’t guarantee that your baby will get lots of attention from a qualified and loving caregiver, it does boost your odds and mean the provider has met government-set health and safety standards. Learn more about your individual state’s licensing requirements at the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education or at Child Care Aware. Here’s what else to look for:
    • Group daycare centers: Those accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) meet even higher standards, including a good ratio of adults to babies; low turnover in caregivers; and a philosophy that promotes the health, safety and development of kids in its care.
    • In-home daycare: If it’s accredited by the National Association for Family Child Care, the provider has met higher standards.
  • How many children will you care for at once? Because babies and young toddlers need lots of attention, be sure the facility sets limits:
    • Group daycare centers: Look for a max of six babies or eight toddlers per group, with ideally one staffer for every three babies (up to 12 months) and one staffer for every four toddlers (13 to 30 months).
    • In-home daycare: Six kids (including the caregiver’s own) should be the limit, with no more than two kids under 2 years old.
  • What’s your childcare philosophy? Make sure you’re comfortable with the caregiver’s policies on early education, discipline, soothing and feeding. Ask open-ended questions like:
    • oWhat would you do if my baby kept reaching for something after you told him no?
    • Do you believe in disciplining bad toddler behavior with consequences or time-outs?
    • How do you handle a baby who cries because he wants to be held all the time?
    • What happens when two tots want to play with the same toy?
    • What do you do if a baby refuses to eat?
    • What type of baby food do you feed babies who’ve started solids?
  • What qualifications and experience do you have? Caregiver(s) should be trained in CPR and first aid.At a group center, the director should have a degree in early childhood education, while teachers should have training in that field or early childhood development. In family daycares, training can be hard to find — but you definitely want someone who has hands-on experience with kids your baby’s age (the caregiver’s own kids count).
  • Are parents involved? Are parents invited to participate in the program in some way? And if it’s a group center, is there a parent board that makes up policy? Will you be required to participate, and if so will it fit into your schedule?
  • What are your policies regarding immunizations? It’s possible that daycares you’re considering, especially if they’re unlicensed, don’t require kids to be fully immunized. Steer clear of those with lax rules on vaccinations.
  • What are health requirements for caregivers? They should have had complete medical checkups, including a TB test, and received all their vaccinations.
  • How are sick kids handled? The provider should have clear-cut guidelines about sick kids staying home and a time frame for parents to fetch tots who become ill under their care.
  • What do you serve kids to eat? All meals and snacks should be wholesome, safe and appropriate for the ages of the kids being served. Parental instructions regarding breast milk, formula, solids and meal schedules should be followed. Bottles should never be propped.

For a group daycare, also ask:

  • How long have the teachers been on staff? High turnover is a bad sign — it could mean the workers aren’t paid well and/or aren’t qualified for childcare.
  • How is the staff screened? All daycare workers should have had complete health and criminal background checks. Ask if you can see proof of this if you come to inspect the facility.

For a home daycare, also ask:

  • Who else will be in the house when my child is there? Get the scoop on all adults, teens and elders. Find out what roles they’ll play in your child’s care and, if they’ll be involved, what kind of experience they have with kids. Ask about pets too, in case your child has allergies or a fear of animals.
  • What about policies for personal emergencies and time off? Find out what the caregiver does with kids when personal emergencies arise that require her to leave, as well as how many vacation days she takes and how much advance notice she gives you before her days off.
  • Is there a backup option? Don’t be surprised if there is none — but it’s good to know the deal beforehand so you can have a plan in place.
  • Does your insurance cover my child? Of course you hope you’ll never need it, but find out if the caregiver’s homeowner’s insurance covers injuries to any child in her care.

What to Look for When You Visit Daycare

Once you’ve screened your daycare options, schedule a visit at three to five group/family daycare centers. Make sure you see the following features before you enroll your baby:

Happy children and staff

You want to see alert, content, clean babies in spacious rooms, with a quiet area where they can nap in separate cribs (and according to their own schedules). Caregivers should genuinely seem energetic, patient and genuinely interested in the kids. Visit toward the end of the day to get a more accurate picture of what the center is like than you would first thing in the morning.

A stimulating environment

Look for lots of verbal and physical interaction between kids and caregivers. Does staff get down on the floor and interact with kids? Are the kids engaged (and not zoned out, looking off into the distance)?

Check as well for age-appropriate toys that are in good shape. And ask for a rundown of the daily activities, which should include lots of singing, talking, reading and dancing as well as on-the-floor playtime activities.

Separation of age groups

Babies under 12 months shouldn’t be mingling with toddlers and older children — bigger tots can be pretty rambunctious and haven’t yet mastered being gentle with infants.

Locked doors

Your child can’t come and go as she pleases at home, so she shouldn’t be able to freely roam (or leave!) the daycare center either. Adult visitors should also be closely monitored so only staff and authorized grown-ups who are there to pick up and drop off can enter.

A clean and healthy setting

A well-run group daycare center spells out its health and sanitation rules on a sign, and then follows them:

  • Caregivers wash hands after each diaper change
  • The diapering and food prep areas are kept separate and scrubbed after each use
  • Feeding utensils are washed in a dishwasher or are disposable
  • Bottles are prepared under sanitary conditions
  • Teething rings, pacifiers and washcloths shouldn’t be shared
  • Toys are rinsed off with a sanitizing solution, and/or each child gets a separate box

Safety measures

Make sure that the daycare provides a safe environment for kids by taking the same safety precautions you do at home. There should be:

  • No choking hazards, including small toys or playthings that can break apart into small pieces
  • No pillows or fluffy bedding in cribs; babies should be put to sleep on their backs
  • Gates on open stairways
  • Window guards on upstairs windows
  • Spic-and-span kitchen and bathroom and (ideally) an enclosed outdoor space for play
  • Clear floors (i.e., not littered with toys)
  • Smoke detectors, clearly marked exits and fire extinguishers
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