Approach your daycare search as you would a job hunt. Be thorough, do your homework, and start your quest early — six months before you'll need it isn't too soon, especially if you live in a large city where daycare slots fill up faster than subway cars during rush hour. Once you find a promising daycare center or home daycare, you'll need to take a few steps to make sure it's one you want to stick with. We've outlined the process for you below.
One: Identify your priorities
First, decide what you want. Are you looking for daycare near work? Or would one closer to your home be more convenient? Do you want your child around lots of other kids as he would be in a center, or just a few (more likely in a home daycare)? Write everything down so you can refer to the list as you size up potential sites.
Two: Do your research
- Ask around to find the most reputable daycares. Friends and family can help get the word out for you, and personal references are the best kind.
- Ask some experts. The Childcare Aware hotline (800/424-2246) can give you the number of your local childcare resource and referral agency, which, in turn, can refer you to licensed centers and home daycares in your area. Better yet, ask for a list of accredited centers near you. If you find one with a stamp of approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association of Family Child Care (NAFCC), count yourself lucky. Of course, accreditation isn't everything — make sure you're choosing the best overall situation for your child.
- Go online. Both the NAEYC and the National Association of Family Child Care have sites; visit them for guidelines and contact information. The NAEYC also has its searchable database of accredited daycare centers online.
- As a last resort, go to the phone book. Your Yellow Pages should have a list of childcare centers and home daycares in your area. If you're new to the area, this may be the best place to start — make a photocopy of the listings and start calling around.
Three: Visit and interview
You can ask a few preliminary questions over the phone (fees and ages of children, for example), but you won't really get a sense of what a daycare place is like until you go there and meet the staff and director. Ask daycare center directors and caregivers and home daycare providers about everything from hours, fees, and vacation schedules to philosophies on childrearing issues like discipline, feeding, and sleeping. Get a schedule of the day's activities and the center's policies. Pay attention to your gut feeling and how the director or caregiver handles the questions.
Ultimately, choosing a daycare is a very personal decision. Our checklists highlight specifics, but basically, you'll want a warm, clean, safe environment and experienced teachers who are paid well and happy with their jobs. Children crave consistency and need to form strong relationships with their caregivers, so you don't want teachers who come and go.
Pay attention to the caregiver-child ratios, and how many children are in a classroom. "It's easier to give one-on-one attention and be responsive when there are fewer kids in a room," says Stephanie Glowacki, director of accreditation services at the NAEYC. Be sure to give the daycare's numbers a reality test: A seemingly ideal 1:3 caregiver-baby ratio loses its impact if toddlers are always in the baby room, if an infant caregiver is called to help with the toddlers, or if one of the babies is colicky or has special needs.
Four: Check references
Positive word-of-mouth is a powerful endorsement. If a certain daycare has a buzz, ask other parents why they're raving about it. Ask each daycare you're considering for a list of past and present references — and call them. While you may run into a bit of a bias (centers and providers aren't likely to refer you to people who weren't happy with them), nothing is more convincing than hearing how other parents rate their care.
When you call, ask specific questions (don't ask if they like the center; ask what exactly they like about it and what they don't). If their child is no longer there, ask why. You may also want to call your state's Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against the center or caregiver.
Five: Kid-test it
Come back and visit for a while with your child. You'll want to see how he and the caregiver interact and if he seems comfortable in the center's environment.
Six: Get on the waiting list
If the daycare of your dreams isn't available, don't despair. Putting yourself on a waiting list almost guarantees you'll get in at some point — even if it isn't precisely when you need it. And be sure to ask the daycare for recommendations of other similar places. In the meantime, keep looking and arrange interim care (share care, relative, etc.) until a spot becomes available.