If you’ll be returning to full or parttime employment after your baby is born, daycare can help you get the job done. But as you probably know, open childcare spots can go faster than ice cream melts on a sweltering day. Still, for your child’s wellbeing and your own peace of mind, it pays to get picky.
Starting a few months before you’re ready, “visit three to five daycare programs,” says Kris Murray, author of The Ultimate Childcare Marketing Guide and a consultant to the childcare industry. To narrow your selection, do your homework.
Here are 12 key questions to ask prospective childcare providers that can help you know if you’ve found the right place–or if you need to keep looking.
1. “What activities will my child do?”
If you’re scouting out learning-center based daycare centers, the code word to listen for is “curriculum.”
With emerging research about early brain development, top childcare programs aren’t glorified babysitters. They’re full-featured learning environments, even at the infant level because learning starts from birth.
“There are all sorts of age-appropriate curriculums available now, from baby sign language in an infant room to early reading, nature, science, art, technology and drama programs for toddlers,” Murray says.
Each program is typically organized into themes. If the theme is insects, for example, your toddler might be asked to dress up as his favorite bug for the drama unit, paint a bug for the art unit and learn about insects in the computer lab for the technology unit.
To you though, it may all just look like fun and games. But that’s the idea. “Children learn best through play,” Murray says.
If you’ll be considering home childcare situations, there probably won’t be a “curriculum,” but the providers should have an approach.
Ask: What would a typical day for my baby look like? “Hearing a schedule with exact times is unrealistic, but they should be able to give you a general flow of how the day rolls,” says Kate Jordan-Downs, senior director of education programs at Kindercare, the largest provider of early childhood education in the U.S.
2. “What’s the teacher to child ratio at this daycare center?”
It’s important for your child to get plenty of attention, especially the younger she is. Babies and toddlers 12 months old and younger need an adult to child ratio of no more than 1:4 (one adult per four infants).
For toddlers 12 to 28 months old, the ratio should be 1:3, one instructor per three children. Small class sizes of 10 to 12 children or less is preferred too. Even if there are plenty of adults to children, a larger group of toddlers can feel chaotic.
3. “What’s your daycare center’s policy about unannounced visits?”
The best answer is, “No problem. We have an open door policy.” Impromptu parent visits should always be welcome, Murray says. After signing your child up, you should be able to drop by anytime.
4. “How will I know what my child did all day?”
Some childcare centers will distribute a daily activity sheet detailing what each child experienced that day, such as what she had for snack and how often her diaper was changed. Even better is paperless communication. Many daycare centers offer e-mail or texting messages two to four times daily.
It’s a big plus. Imagine sitting in a meeting and getting a text from your child’s daycare or preschool with a video or photo of a picture he just painted. “Real time streaming helps you stay connected to your child’s day,” Murray says. When you pick your child up, you can say “Look at the cute pictures I got from you today” and talk about them together.
5. “What are the qualifications of your caregivers?”
“Ask for a list of the teachers, which includes the number of years of experience they’ve had in the field, their degree (in early childhood education for the lead teacher) or the training they’ve had,” Murray says. Lead teachers should also have five to seven years of experience. With practice comes the competence to handle challenging issues, such as fighting and other behavioral problems or potty training in a toddler program.
6. “Are drop-off and pick-up hours flexible?”
If you work from home sometimes or need a half-day help here and there, look for a daycare option works with your nontraditional schedule. Daycare that’s less than full-time is a growing trend. “For a monthly membership fee, many daycare centers will allow you to drop off your child whenever you want,” Murray says.
7. “What’s the security situation like at this daycare center?”
Most childcare programs are safer than they were five years ago. Some now, for example, have biometrics at the entrance. Instead of punching in a code at the door, you’re be required to place your finger on a pad to enter the building. “Stricter regulations on safety and background checks are now required in many states,” Murray says.
When touring a daycare center, ask whether the children are monitored by a secure webcam. Is the feed distributed to the director’s office so there’s oversight of what’s happening in the classroom? (Good.) Can you have access to the feed as well? (Double good.) Not only does camera surveillance provide peace of mind because you can see what’s going on, it allows you to engage in your child’s day, as in: “I saw you help Sam pick up his crayons. That was so nice of you.”
“You get to spy with a positive purpose,” Murray says.
8. “How often do the kids get to go outside?”
Beyond extremely hot or cold weather, “there’s no excuse for children not to get outside every day,” Murray says. Your childcare center should support the full health of the child, which includes spending time in nature and being active.
10. “What’s your disaster recovery and emergency policy?”
If there’s a fire or disaster at the school, you want to know that teachers have been properly trained to respond quickly and effectively to get every child out. Every teacher should be trained in CPR too.
11. “How do you handle tears, conflicts between children and tantrums?”
“Kids will turn into terrors. It’s inevitable,” Jordan-Downs says. Listen for answers that reflect teaching and positive role modeling for handling conflict rather than punishing.
12. Ask yourself: Do the teachers at this daycare have a warm and loving demeanor?
After you’ve narrowed it down to your top picks, spend an hour or two hour observing a classroom when the kids are awake (not at nap time).
What’s the vibe?
The daycare center should feel open and warm-hearted. “Beyond being physically safe, children should feel emotionally safe,” Jordan-Downs says. Teachers should look like they’re happy to be there, engaged with the children and picking up on their emotional cues. From 0 to 3 years of age, 70 percent of your child’s brain development is occurring. “Having a secure, positive relationship with a caring adult fosters a love of learning,” Jordan-Downs says. Caregivers should be engaging with the children down at their physical level, such as crouching near the table and on the floor.
If you get a good feeling about the place, chances are your child will like it too because he’ll pick up on your satisfaction.
Finally, confirm your selection by finding out what everyone else has to say. Review testimonials from other parents on the daycare center’s Facebook page and review sites such as Yelp. “Sometimes there are disgruntled employees or an occasional unhappy parent,” Murray says. If you see 10 great reviews and one negative one, you’re probably fine. Look for a preponderance of positive.”
“But always trust your gut,” Jordan-Downs says. “Never underestimate yourself and your own instincts.”
After you decide on a daycare, ask for a practice day to make sure your child is comfortable with the environment.
For more back to work advice, check out this post on using a breastpump at work, this one on how to get organized/get out of the house in the morning with less stress and this one on help to help your parents help you (if you need your parents/in-laws to pitch in with childcare).
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Eli Richardson says
It really helped when you talked about how we’d choose a safe daycare for our children. My wife and I have to visit daycares next week before all the good ones are taken, so we’ll definitely use your tips to find the best one. Thank you for the insight on checking a daycare’s emergency policies and staff’s CPR training.
Levi Armstrong says
I love that you said I should observe the teachers in the daycare center for at least an hour or two to check if they have a warm and loving demeanor towards the children. My husband and I are starting to look for a daycare center for our twin daughters since I’ll be going back to work by January. I’ll follow your advice and visit the facility first before making any decisions. Thanks!
Megan Alder says
My husband and I are looking for advice to be able to choose a reliable and good daycare center. You made a great point when you recommended asking what activities will my child be doing, and how will you know they were done, as well as knowing what’s the security situation. I definitely want to make sure that my daughter is at a safe place, and I want to make sure they keep my daughter learning.
Kate Hansen says
It’s good to know that you should ask about the security at the daycare. In a couple of weeks, I will be starting a new job and I won’t be able to stay home to watch my 2-year-old daughter so I need to find a place for her to go while I’m gone. I’ll make sure to keep this information in mind as I search for a daycare for my daughter to go to.
Zachary Tomlinson says
The timing of me discovering this article is unbelievable! My sister asked me to look for a daycare for her daughter since she works all day and does not have enough time to take care of her. I liked how you mentioned that my sister has to ask the daycare regarding security and the qualifications of everyone taking care of the children. The security of the children and their well-being are indeed important.
I’m glad this was helpful. Thanks so much for your comments, Zachary.