How to Find Child Care You Can Trust

Whether you choose day care, family child care, or a sitter, stellar help is on the way. 

School Supplies TARA DONNE

I remember when we took our infant son to visit a nearby day-care center. My husband and I arrived unannounced at a place that many of my mom friends raved about. We were graciously welcomed (nice!), asked for photo IDs (reassuring!), and given a thorough tour (nothing to hide). We learned about feeding, naptime, and outdoor play, and when our guide asked if we had questions, we shrugged and said, "Nope!" It never occurred to me to take along a list of questions, nor would I have known what to ask. "We spend so much time researching what car to get, where to buy a house, or where to vacation," says Iris Chin Ponte, Ph.D., director of the Henry Frost Children's Program, in Belmont, Massachusetts. "But when it comes to looking for child care, many parents don't know where to start." After reading this, you most certainly will! 

Family Child Care

Day care in someone's home appeals to parents who want a personal environment for their little one. "Many parents like this setting for babies because it feels so nurturing," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. "Plus, the hours can be more flexible than at a day-care center." Make sure:

There is a business license and an inspection report you can view. These documents show the state has run background checks on the provider and inspected the home, and that the provider-to-child ratio is within state limits. Find your state at childcareaware.org, and search for accredited providers at nafcc.org; 1-to-3 is the ideal for infants.

The provider has been certified. Although experience as a mom is a fine quality in a family day-care provider, it's not enough. Check that she's trained in CPR and infant first aid, and that she takes refresher courses annually. Ask how many kids she accepts, max (including drop-ins). If you expect the place to serve as your child's preschool in a few years, inquire about the provider's education and experience.

It's okay to drop by for a tour. Do this unannounced, and check to see how the child-care space is set up, how clean the kitchen is, and how kids interact with the provider. Show up when kids are having a meal or at naptime. "That's when children get tired and cranky, and how the provider handles this will say a lot," Smith notes.

The home is babyproofed. Inspect a provider's house for any safety hazards. Find out how many smoke detectors are in the house (as in your own home, there should be at least one per floor) and if there is an emergency evacuation plan. Check that outdoor play areas are fenced and gated securely. "If a provider resents the hard questions, then that's your cue to leave," Smith says.

You know who else will have access to your child. Find out about other adults living in the home. Also, ask whether the child-care provider ever leaves her charges with someone while she runs an errand, and how often this happens. Remember, you'll have to be as comfortable with the provider's backup as you are with her.

References are freely provided. Ask at least two parents what they love about the provider—and what, if anything, they wish were different.

It's a screen-free zone. Children younger than 2 should spend little to no time watching TV or playing with digital devices. Screens prevent interaction with a caregiver, which is crucial for development. "There is research that shows an increase in ADHD behaviors in young children who watch a lot of TV," says Jill Stamm, Ph.D., author of Bright From the Start. 

Day-Care Centers

If you're looking for a lot of socialization and structure, this option's for you. Many centers offer extended drop-off and pickup hours (although extra hours will probably cost you a bit more). It's also comforting to know you won't be caught off guard by a solo provider who calls in sick. Make sure:

The facility is fully licensed and accredited. Day-care regulations vary from state to state, but a licensed program should, at the minimum, meet state health and safety standards and have strict caregiver-child ratios (these ratios apply to family-run day care as well as larger day-care centers). To find accredited programs in your area that voluntarily exceed minimum state requirements, check out naeyc.org and necpa.net.

There's a daily schedule. Infants thrive on routine and structure, but there should be free play for older babies as well, says Barbara Rigney-Hill, associate professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University in Northridge. "Children also need time for discovery," she notes.

The curriculum is nicely varied. If you're planning to keep your child there for the long haul, it's good to know now whether the center emphasizes early academics. One confidence-inducing sign is an activity schedule posted for the week, which indicates forethought.

The kids are varied too. Diversity is a priority for families who want their children to feel that they fit in as they get older and start to notice differences among others, as well as for parents who want their kids to grow up understanding that not everyone has the same background, beliefs, or skin color.

You'll get daily updates. From feedings to poops to naps, you want to stay in the loop. Some centers give daily "report cards," but have no fear—they don't dole out grades! 

A Full-Time Sitter

A babysitter who comes to your home can be an excellent choice for parents who have more than one child (the rates won't double with two kids); who have an unpredictable work schedule or a child with special needs; or who'd like a care provider to also do some light child-related housekeeping, such as laundry and cooking. Make sure the babysitter you hire has:

A good history If you go through an agency, it will do educational and background screenings of the candidates. If you find a sitter through word of mouth, ask how much education and child-care training she has (including infant CPR) and if she can share a recent background check. If not, run one. Nanny.org has a list of companies that do checks. Ask for references from former employers as well.

A few hobbies Inquiring about a potential sitter's interests isn't idle chitchat; you'll get clues as to what leisure activities she may plan for your baby, says Susan Tokayer, copresident of the International Nanny Association. If she enjoys cycling, for instance, she'll probably want to take your child outside.

A happy home life As Tokayer points out, "You don't want someone who's going to have daily drama."

Crisis-management skills Ask for an example of how she has responded in a past emergency. "You need a person who has demonstrated she can act quickly, stay calm, and make the right decision," says Tokayer. If she doesn't know to call 911 first and you second, keep looking!

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