Start making the rounds about six months before you'll need childcare (good centers fill up fast) and watch for the warning signs listed below. If you see any, keep looking.
A so-so reputation
Don't hesitate to judge a center based on what you've heard from other parents. Ask for specifics, though, to make sure that negative comments apply to your situation and aren't something unique to a particular family and the center.
Take a survey of neighbors and fellow parents at the park. Ask them: Is this a popular center? Do you know whether a child has ever been lost or injured at the center? If you're even the slightest bit reluctant to leave your child at a center, pass.
Bottom line: If other parents aren't thrilled with the center, it's best to keep looking.
Rules and regulations are important. Centers without clearly established guidelines for everything from operating hours to how they handle emergencies are likely to have other organizational problems as well.
In-home daycare may be less formal and more flexible, but a good in-home daycare should still have a set schedule, safety policies, and a safe physical environment.
Similarly, centers with a lax sick-child policy should be crossed off your list. If children and staff who come down with a fever or the flu don't have to stay home for at least 24 hours, your child is more likely to catch something.
The center should require children and staff to have current immunizations and regular checkups. This policy is a good indication of how seriously the center will take your child's health and well-being.
If you run into a closed-door policy, keep looking. A center that balks at having parents drop by unannounced could be hiding something.
Bottom line: If a daycare center doesn't have clear rules and organization, it's not likely to be right for you. Keep looking.
A questionable curriculum
Skip centers that either have no daily program or offer one that is static and unchallenging. Children need variety, change, and a chance to grow. The best centers offer a wide range of both group and individual activities.
If babies spend most of their time in swings, infant seats, or other "baby holders," if the center doesn't offer organized activities that change regularly, or if television and videos are a big part of the day's agenda, cross the facility off your list. Also, take a peek into the art area — is it well stocked with supplies? Are there paintings and other projects on the walls?
Feel free to ask the staff about the daily routine and also about special activities. Does the staff take children on outings and, if so, do they do it in a way you consider safe? Do they celebrate holidays and, if so, which ones? The answers can give you an idea of how attentive the staff is to planning and preparation.
Don't linger at centers with a poor selection of age-appropriate toys. Having enough of the right playthings not only encourages your child's development by stimulating creative, imaginative play, but it may also help prevent kids from getting in too many tussles over who gets to play with what when. As a general rule, be sure the toys don't have small parts that could choke a baby or toddler.
Bottom line: Your child needs a wide range of age-appropriate activities to encourage his development. If the center doesn't offer them, move on.
An inadequate staff
If a center's employees seem underqualified, keep looking. A staff that isn't educated (ideally, at least two years of college and a background in early childhood development), responsible, enthusiastic, and well prepared won't provide the best care for your child.
Caregivers should also be trained in CPR and share your basic philosophies on issues such as sleep, discipline, and feeding.
Watch how the staff interacts with the children in their care. Two sure signs of a less-than-ideal situation are caregivers who speak to children only in baby talk or who yell or speak harshly to them. And of course, if you ever see a staff member hit a child, leave immediately and report the incident to Child Protective Services.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) evaluates daycare programs and awards them accreditation if they meet a series of standards. Look for the "torch" — the symbol of NAEYC approval — or ask the director of the daycare center if the center has applied for this accreditation.
Among the qualifications necessary to earn NAEYC accreditation is implementing a curriculum that fosters all areas of a child's development: cognitive, emotional, language, physical, and social. NAEYC-accredited centers must also provide ongoing assessments of each child, promote good nutrition and health, and employ a qualified staff. (Search NAEYC's database of accredited centers.)
The NAEYC also sets staffing guidelines for centers:
- For babies, the ratio is one caregiver for every three children if a group has six infants, or one for every four if it has eight.
- For toddlers 12 to 24 months, the ratio is one to three for six children, and one to four for eight or more children. For children age 24 to 36 months, these same ratios expand to one to five for ten children, and one to six for a group of 12.
- For preschoolers 36 months and older, the ratio should be one to six for a group of 12 children, one to seven for a group of 14, one to eight for a group of 16, and one to nine for a group of 18.
Trust your instincts. When you tour the facility, watch carefully to see whether babies are tended to quickly when they cry or if the staff, overworked and overwhelmed, lets them wail.
Watch older children as well. Are they listened to when they ask questions? Do they receive help when they need to go to the bathroom? Whether your child is going to receive the attention he needs should be one of your primary considerations.
An undercompensated staff
Poor staff benefits lead to high turnover. Ideally, your child will be cared for the same familiar faces day after day.
Of course, even the best centers sometimes find it hard to hire and keep dedicated employees. Most childcare workers are paid very little (usually just above minimum wage), and the demands of keeping up with several babies or toddlers each day can be wearying. But centers that don't offer vacation and health insurance are even less likely to have a loyal staff that will care for your child long-term.
Bottom line: If the staff's training isn't up to snuff, they seem overworked, or they don't stick around very long, the center isn't for you.
Dirty, unsafe facilities
If the center seems dreary and rundown, keep looking. Here's a quick checklist:
- Food preparation areas should be far from toilets and diaper-changing stations.
- Floors, walls, and the kitchen area should be clean.
- Heat, light, and ventilation should be adequate.
- Equipment should be well maintained.
And if you don't see staff washing their hands after every diaper change (and sanitizing the changing area) or if the center generally looks poorly kept, don't linger. Pick up a few toys — how sticky are they? Is the art area fully stocked and organized?
Look for plenty of space, too. According to NAEYC, centers should have at least 35 square feet of indoor space per child and 75 square feet per child outside.
Skip centers with safety problems:
- Toys and play equipment should be in good repair.
- Upstairs windows (if any) should be kept closed or covered with window guards.
- All medicines and other hazardous substances should be out of reach.
- Bedding should be fresh and firm (to reduce the risk of SIDS for babies).
- The outdoor play area should be level and secure.
- Smoke detectors should be present and working.
- Radiators and heaters should be covered or otherwise protected.
- A first-aid kit and fire extinguisher should be close at hand.
- All standard childproofing devices should be in place (covered outlets, safety gates, door latches).
- Check the security at doors and outdoor gates — strangers shouldn't be able to just walk in off the street.
Bottom line: If the center seems dingy, cramped, or dangerous, move on.
An expired license
If a center's license is out of date, cross it off your list. Many centers have their license posted prominently. If you don't see one, call your local social services department to check.
A license in itself doesn't guarantee quality care, but since most states require proper credentials, centers that don't have a license aren't fulfilling the most basic criteria.
Daycare centers are also required to meet state licensing regulations for health and safety. And facilities that haven't passed the stringent accreditation process required by NAEYC (described above) may be questionable.
Bottom line: A license isn't everything, but if a center doesn't have one, it's not for you.