How to choose a daycare
After months or weeks of worrying about keeping your new baby alive, imposing sleep schedules, tracking feedings, learning which toys and songs calm them, then worrying about them becoming too dependent on them, it’s time for the next big decision for baby. Sadly parental leave isn’t forever and you eventually have to go back to work. This means it’s time to decide on daytime caregiving for your baby. Most parents will choose a full-time daycare center, though there are also the options of nannies, au pairs, and in-home daycare. If you are like most parents, choosing a daycare can be a bit overwhelming. Here’s what I’ve learned from a multitude of daycare visits. The little things to keep an eye open for are the ones that will most likely impact your choice.
Start with figuring out your goals. What are the most important aspects of a daycare for you and your child? Is it education? Nutrition? Realtime minute by minute data and details on what your child is doing? Take some time to figure out your top three or so goals for daycare. This will help you focus in during your search and as relevant questions as you tour.
Visit three or more daycares. You can get a good idea of what is available from the internet, but also ask co-workers with young children where they have their children or where they looked. Daycares should be very willing to schedule a tour during the day with you. Make sure it’s during the morning or late afternoon when the kids won’t be napping. If they are busy, you can see what the daily activities and care look like. A visit will last about 30 minutes and should spend some time actually visiting the room(s) where your child would be. Make sure to visit at least three to get a sense of the little differences. Most will look pretty good, but after a few visits you’ll start to notice the little differences.
Inspect the security. It should be hard to get either in or out. You don’t want uninvited guests coming in, and don’t want your child finding their way out. At minimum, there should be a locked front door. Most places will have either a front desk for security or require a pin code to enter. Some also have fingerprint scanners. It’s also good to see security cameras, but remember these can also be an issue if in the room as it means someone can watch at all times.
Check out the decor and furnishings. During the day, your child will be spending the majority of their time here. The space should be comforting, clean, and modern. Chipped paint, uncared for walls or furniture, or out of date equipment are not only a sign of poor maintenance which may indicate poor care for children as well, but can also be dangerous. Similar toys and equipment to what you have at home is probably a good sign. Look also for art or decor from the children, it shows that the curriculum includes things beyond eating and naps.
Speaking of the curriculum, it should include planned activities and education. Good facilities will post the schedule daily outside the room and send a copy to parents. Look for things like art, music, sign language (for infants), language skills (for toddlers), and even foreign language skills. Motor skills are also incredibly important for infants and toddlers, so ask about what they incorporate for this as well. Touring a daycare is actually a lot like touring a college. You’ll know a good fit based on feel, but also want to make sure to get a good sense of the day to day feeling.
How are the staff and children interacting? The ratio of kids to staff should be fairly low, typically about four to one. Observe what the staff is actually doing and how they are interacting with the children. When they do it daily for hours, it’s hard to break habits, so it’s unlikely that they are dressing things up just for you. Spend some time to try to talk to them as well. Can they communicate well? Do they seem like people you want your child spending a huge amount of their time with? Do they actually understand the curriculum and objectives? Good places will leave you with a warm feeling while others will leave you wondering if the children are really well cared for. Ask about their accreditation and certification as well. There are a large number of independent programs for daycare workers, so do some research on them. Don’t believe that care will be excellent just because they have some verification from someone you’ve never heard of. Also try to get a sense of their approach to things like comforting crying babies and fussy nappers. Make sure these are in line with your approach at home, because if they don’t, you’ll lose the battle as your child is spending more time with them.
Inspect the room and facility layout. Some will have separate nap rooms, though if so, make sure to ask about how they keep an eye on both. Ideally cribs are not shared at all, i.e. your child has an assigned crib that no one else uses. There should also be separate rooms for each group. You definitely don’t want your infant in the same room as high energy toddlers. Ask about how classes are broken up as well. Most will separate infants and toddlers, but in reality, there is a fairly big difference between a 6 week old and a 12 month old. Rooms should be clean and shoe free for infants and toddlers. Look for the little booties you had to wear in the operating room during delivery. There should also be sinks and sanitary changing areas. It’s probably not a big deal for most, but if you want to minimize time dragging around a car seat, see if they have secured storage for them.
Get outside. Many facilities will have outdoor play areas and playgrounds. Good ones will have separate areas, ideally fenced off, for each age group. Again, you definitely don’t want your infant with limited mobility skills outside with crazed toddlers. The whole area should be fenced and secure as well. Even infants should get outside time daily, likely driven around in a buggy for 20 to 30 minutes a couple of times a day. Concrete and hard surfaces are the enemy here. Ideally there should be grass or turf and smooth surfaces on the equipment.
Taste Test. Ok you don’t need to taste the food, but see what is offered. Some centers will only offer snacks and rely on you providing the meals. Other will offer a fully catered lunch option and maybe even an afternoon meal. This is also a good time to ask about their philosophy on introducing foods, as you may or may not want them to try new things with your child. You should also be able to grab a sample menu for the day or week.
How will you keep in touch? What communication options -in both directions — are offered? Many will give printouts of schedules and keep feeding and nap logs, some will send emails, and many more are now using Tadpole or a similar app that provides real time updates on feedings and naps. It also allows communication with the caregivers and faculty. You can even get pictures through it in a secure manner. There is a big difference between getting a sheet with times for feedings and getting them real time and in addition to details about what activities were done during the day. Knowing what your child is doing and that they are doing more than just laying around will give you a tremendous amount of piece of mind.
Is this a lot to absorb and find out about? Yes, of course. But finding a good daycare should be very high on your priorities for your children. The differences between a good and great center may be hard to notice during a 30 minute tour, so it’s important to inspect the little details. A good daycare will provide not only care for your child, but will keep them busy, occupied, and help drive their development. You need to make sure you find a place that you will not only be comfortable with, but will look forward to dropping your child off at each day. A good place will leave both you and your child feeling happy.