How To Choose the Right Daycare

Getting Started
As a single parent, the care of your child is never far from your thoughts. When you can't be there, you want your child to be in a safe, wholesome environment. Many parents find that a day care center or a family child care is the best option.

Even in remote, rural areas, parents may have a choice of 3 or 4 child care options. In urban areas, there may be scores of centers and homes. How do you find the one that is best for you and your child?

A Plan
Finding the best arrangement for your child can take some time, so you'll want to start early, ideally several months before the care is needed. Word of mouth around the community speaks volumes. Ask friends, family member, and co-workers. Look for child care that stays almost to capacity and has children who have stayed with the same care provider from infancy to entrance into school.

Narrow your list to your top 3-4 choices. Make appointments to visit. Go to the appointments prepared to inspect and to ask questions. When possible, visit both day care centers and family child care in homes. Get a sense for which one is a better fit for your child.

A Checklist
While you can ask as many questions as you choose, you also want to find a place where you can develop a trusting relationship. You want to communicate from the first interview that you will trust care givers to partner with you for the best experience for your child. Avoid approaching child care with an air of suspicion or distrust. Expect to have a positive relationship with professionals who will treat you and your child with dignity.

The state has established guidelines that all accredited child care providers must comply with. Check to see that the center has a current license, and check key areas such as kitchen, bathroom, and outdoor playground for compliance. Then, you can focus your attention on your specific areas of interest that go beyond state regulations.

Here are some common checklist items to consider:

Policies and contract - hours, tuition, fees, vacation days, sick policy (Do you still pay if your child is sick? In family child cares, is the substitute experienced and professionally trained?), transportation, late pick-up fee, meal, etc.

Wait list - When do you anticipate an opening? Is there space for your child? (Herein lies one of the reasons why you start your search early.

Parental involvement - To what extent are parents welcome to participate? Consider not only your desire to be involved, but also the extent to which you welcome other parents' involvement with your child.

Atmosphere - Do children appear relaxed, engaged, and happy?

Play areas - Are there safe indoor and outdoor play areas with adequate space?

Food/snack policy - Is food provided? How are meals and snack calculated? Can children bring food from home?

Caregivers - Plan to meet the person who would be your child's primary caregiver. Are caregivers engaged with the children?

Floorplan - Are there separate areas for different ages: infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children? While some cross-age activities are healthy, maintaining separate areas can also help to ensure that each child gets the level of help and attention needed at that stage.

Age and groupings - To what extent do children interact with others outside his exact peer group?

Scheduling - Licensed child care providers are expected to post a schedule. When you visit, does it appear that the schedule is being followed? Are you comfortable with the balance of teacher-guided and child-lead play and learning times? Is there time for art, dance, or music?

Location - There is an obvious convenience factor of choosing a provider that is close to you or close to your workplace, assuming that your work is stable and unlikely to change. Consider your work hours and the provider's hours of operation. Make sure the schedules mesh. Will you plan to run errands after work or go directly to pick up your child?

Caregivers - Are teachers happy, experienced, and paid well enough to provide stability?

Caregiver to child ration - Ratios of 3:1 for infants, 4:1 for 2 year olds, and 7:1 for 3 year olds are common.

Room capacity - Consider the number of children in each room. Even in rooms with the proper adult to child ratio, the actual care a child receives may be better or worse if children play in a large group.

Perspective - How do providers view their responsibility to the children? Are children treated with respect, flexibility, and patience?

Discipline - Is there a set of reasonably consistent rules that keep children safe and teach respect for others?

Individual attention - Are children given individual attention? Are children's names displayed in the classroom?

Consider the list. Pick out the "deal breaker" items from to include on your own list. You can get answers on your visits by observation or by conversing with the director and teachers.

Review Sites
There is no substitute for a center's reputation in the local community; however, if you're not well connected to the community, or if you're seriously considering one of the less known providers, you may find a child care rating site to be helpful. Check out ChildCareRatingZ, Day Care Search, or Cribsters.

Alternatives
You do have options when it comes to child care.

Nanny - For most parents, a day care center is the most cost-effective means of quality child care; however, if you work evenings, nights, or weekends, you may find that a nanny is cheaper than a center.

Au Pair - An au pair is a foreign nanny. Think foreign exchange student. An au pair lives with you. You provide housing, food, and an American experience. The au pair provides child care.

Shared child care - Find parents who work opposite days or hours. Join up and alternate child care days. Another option is to go together to hire a nanny for both children.

Because your child's care is of such great importance, it is easy to fret, obsess, and let guilt and jealousy interrupt the very positive experience your child can have with his caregiver. Research. Visit. And, then trust yourself that you've got the best it can be for yourself and your child.