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How to Choose the Right Day Care

For many parents, going back to work full-time is a difficult transition. But knowing that your infant is in good hands can make that transition a little easier. Because let's be honest: Placing your infant in someone else’s care is serious business. And if you decide to go the day care route, finding the right center for your little miracle is something that takes time—and diligent research.

Experts recommend that doing the leg work early will help working parents avoid lots of worry and lost sleep—not to mention gray hairs—in the long run. “It’s important to start early and explore all the options,” says Barbara A. Willer, Deputy Executive Director of The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Do Your Homework

Before parents start looking for centers, it is a good idea to start with licensed centers (you can find a list of them with a simple search of your state’s Web site) and focus on ones that are accredited through the NAEYC.

“It’s a rigorous process, so they’re making sure they are managing a set curriculum and providing the best care,” says Amy Cormier, early childhood/education specialist, who recommends parents visit approximately three centers in order to get a feel for what each center offers. “Anything over five might be excessive and confusing,” Cormier adds. “[With three], hopefully you’ll get a good idea of what your options are and be able to compare the little things you see in order to choose the one you feel most comfortable with and that you feel meets what you are looking for.” The first step is setting up a tour of the facility where you can meet the teachers and see the day-to-day happenings of the center.

RELATED: Top 10 Signs of a Good Day Care

I Spy...

There are some "Top 5" qualities of day care centers to look for, says Cormier. “The center should be inviting, family-friendly upon walking in, and you should see kids playing, and a lot of adults talking to the kids.”

Willer goes on to advise that parents closely examine the staff while visiting prospective centers. “Look at the nature of the interactions between staff and children,” she says. “Watch how the adults interact with them. See how they respond to the child's cues. Are they warm and loving? Do the children obviously care for and like the caregiver?”

Willer recalls when she was observing a program for her own kids. “One of the children climbed up in the adult's lap and clearly felt so comfortable there. It was a sign of warm, loving care.” Don’t be shy about asking to stick around for a little while to be a fly on the wall and observe the daily activities and overall vibe of the center so you can get a true feel for the atmosphere and evaluate whether it meets your top requirements and the needs of your child.

“You really want to see teachers engaging with the kids—even young babies.

Red Flags

On the flip side, there are some major red flags to be aware of when touring centers. “Among the things you wouldn’t want to see may include a teacher who is moving a child from spot to spot to keep them in a routine, without interaction with the child,” says Cormier. “You want to see children being stimulated. You wouldn’t want to see any children unattended, even in the sleeping area. You don’t want to see children left on their own. The diaper changing area should be clean, and you don’t want to see unsafe things—like kids having access to the trash can.” An unclean, cluttered, or unorganized center is a first cue to a center that you may want to steer clear of.

Willer adds that other red flags you may want to look out for have to do with the teachers’ demeanors. “Do you primarily hear adults using limited words in harsh tones with infants or primarily talking with other adults? Do they approach caring for the babies as a menial task (huge red flag!), or see changing a diaper as a opportunity to talk and nuzzle the baby?” It is important to use your eyes and ears when visiting a center—in order to get the perspective of the child so you get a true feel for what your child’s experience there would be like.

Toy Story

One of the key components of a quality day care center—aside from the emotional and supportive component that the teachers should be providing the kids—is the physicality of the space, of the things in it, such as toys. “Kids need to be in a stimulating environment,” Cormier says. “They are learning through environment and interactions. Parents should scan the room to see what the toy/play options are for kids."

Most importantly, says Cormier, is that there is a “big, open, inviting space with various toys like soft blocks, board books, and soft animals for kids to explore and play with.” A personalized space—one that is adorned with pictures, art and learning-based images is key. “You want to see pictures—actual ones of the kids/families—and also things that they may be learning about. Mirrors on the walls so the kids can use it as an interactive toy.”

Hopefully, the teachers are an extension of those toys. “You really want to see teachers engaging with the kids—even young babies," she says. "Talking—during meal time, diaper changes. Babies are learning through language and creating a connection between adults and babies is critical so they feel like they are in a safe environment. To make them feel more comfortable in their explorations and their play, spaces for kids to be on floor, moving around, but also places and opportunities for the kids to be in a quiet space.”

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Safety First

Just as important as the play element of the center is the safety component. So be on the lookout for anything that could be potentially dangerous, but also for precautions such as secure baby gates at the entrances to each room in the center, fire extinguishers, and maybe even a security camera and members-only access (such as a key fob for parents) at the center’s main entrance.

“Definitely do your research while looking at centers," says Cormier. "They should be licensed, which is usually done by the state. That’s more to secure health codes and the correct ratios of adults/teachers to kids so that they are able to provide adequate care for each child. The standards are there for a reason. In an infant room, there should be no more than eight children per two teachers.”

Licenses and accreditations should be clearly posted and up to date. Again, as you look around the center, imagine your child crawling or starting to walk, and keep in mind how the center’s environment would promote safety or potential hazards in that regard.

Open Door Policy

Ideally, parents should feel welcome at their child’s day care center. So when you’re visiting a center, be sure to ask about their drop-in or visitor’s policy. Parents should always be welcome—and even encouraged—to drop by the day care center at any time. Cormier advises parents to explore “parent/teacher communication, which is vital. You want to make sure the teachers in the center are willing to have a close home-school connection to facilitate not only the kids’ needs but the parents' needs as well. You want to see how they communicate about daily things like a note about the kids’ progress/activities.”

Parents should feel comfortable—and even encouraged—to call with questions or concerns or stop by and visit to spend time with the child. “The center should be open to having you come in and be a part of the room, especially in the transition to starting day care,” says Cormier, who adds that it is important to find a center that keeps parents “in the loop about things like teething, sickness, etc., so they are open—and want to—to meet both the child's and the parents’ needs.”

“Teachers and caregivers in high-quality centers take the time to get to know you and your child and form a strong, caring relationship that allows them to provide the best caring and learning environment to help your child thrive,” adds Willer.

Stay Connected

Working and being a parent can be difficult to juggle, but a good day care center will help keep parents informed about their child’s progress and daily activities. Staying connected with your day care provider will have an impact on your child’s—and your own—experience of their time at the center.

“Take time at the beginning and end of the day to talk to the teacher(s) and, if possible, send notes via email or volunteer," says Willer. "Many day care centers will provide paperwork on a child’s daily activities—such as feedings, nap time and even art projects. This kind of documentation is crucial to keep track of the child’s daily needs as well as plotting a trajectory for their milestones. Ask the center what kind of assessments they perform on the kids at the center—and how often. These can be helpful ways for parents to know that the center is making an effort to keep their kids on track, and they also let parents know if their kids need to work on anything.

The assessments often track physical milestones such as crawling, eating solid foods and development of fine motor skills such as grasping objects. Assessments such as these not only give parents a bird's eye view into their child’s development, but they also give parents confidence in the center’s ability to fulfill their child’s needs. A quality day care center should address and discuss any missed milestones with parents.

It Takes a Village

The parent-teacher connection is a vital piece of the day care experience. Parents should feel like they are aware of their child’s progress and activities at the center. Any concerns, accidents or issues should be addressed quickly and efficiently with a phone call to the parent.

“Your child care provider can be a valuable member of your extended family,” Willer says. “So choose a person and setting that you feel comfortable with, that you believe will support your values and beliefs as a parent and will work with you to make sure that your child learns and grows in the best possible way.”

In other words, parents should approach a day care center as they would any major life decision because the right center can make a huge difference in their child’s life. Often times, a center will host family events and activities throughout the year so that parents can have a chance to become more involved with the center and so that families can get to know each other as well.

The Nuts and Bolts of It All

When visiting a prospective day care center, parents should be prepared to ask questions pertaining to other issues such as class size, teacher qualifications and certifications (CPR training is crucial), turnover (how long have the current teachers been employed at the center), etc.

Other major questions that many parents forget to ask: How is the center staffed over the holidays? When (and on what holidays) is the center closed? What is their snow/inclement weather policy? What is the fire alarm/emergency protocol? And a smoking gun for many families: Do any of their employees smoke?

Don’t be shy about asking too many questions. Seasoned day care providers should be willing and able to answer anything that parents may want to know before placing their child in the center's care. One other tactic for getting a true read on a center’s quality is to talk to other parents/families whose children attend the center. The day care administrator should be open to giving out contact information of parents/families that are willing to talk about their experience with the center.

The Final Countdown

Taking all of this into account can seem overwhelming, but having all of the information at your fingertips will allow parents to make informed decisions about which day care center to choose. Because their child/children may be attending the center for an extended period of time (many centers offer toddler and preschool programs if parents want to extend their child’s stay), it is important to find out as much as you can about a center before committing.

“You want to see if you can get a general feel/understanding [of the places you visit]; ask about the teacher’s qualifications and their knowledge of childhood development. And you want to make sure they understand what age-appropriate activities are suitable for your child to create a schedule for the day,” says Cormier. “They should make you feel comfortable so that you know your child will be in good hands. And if you get a good sense of those things, it will make all of the other pieces fall into place.”

Photo by Getty Images

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