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13 Questions You Should Ask When Choosing a Daycare

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Sending your first kid to daycare can be scary. It's hard to trust someone else, and if you, another family member or a nanny took care of your baby previously, you likely felt you had more control and insight into their day-to-day life. Like me, you'll probably show up on daycare tour day clutching a pad of paper and an extensive list of questions—a list you'll realize after a few weeks or a month or two was all wrong.

So to really figure out if a prospective daycare is a match for your family, try these 11 interview-style questions. I've been through three daycares already and wish I had asked more specific questions like these to really probe a provider's potential. Personalize these so they apply to your kid's needs.

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1. Where do the babies sleep?

My daughter was with seven other babies under the age of 1 at her first daycare. There was no separate room or sleeping area for their cribs, so if one baby was wailing, it was likely that many of his neighbors weren't getting the shut-eye they needed either. It also didn't facilitate babies sleeping on their own schedules very well.

This question matters less with older kids, partly because they probably all nap side-by-side on little mats in one big area. I regretted not considering this the first time around and made it a requirement when interviewing daycares for baby No. 2.

2. Do they move rooms at a certain age? Will I have a say on when they move?

If you go to a larger daycare center that's separated by age group, you might be surprised when one day you arrive at pick up and are told to go the 1-year-old room to retrieve your 10-month-old (True story!). Find out how involved you can be in this process and what they do to ease each transition.

Make sure your daycare matches up with your beliefs ... so you can keep your kids safe.

3. Can you see the weekly menu?

You'll likely pack the bottles and food for your baby, but as kids hit that 1-year milestone, many daycares will start dishing out meals and snacks to your kid or ask you to sign up, i.e., pay for their meal plan. Whether or not you care if the food is organic and features lots of healthy fruits and vegetables is up to you. Try to see what kind of snack they're offering: Is it apple slices or goldfish crackers? Do they provide whole milk? What kind?

I have to admit that I did opt for a daycare with a less than ideal menu (lots of fish sticks and chicken nuggets), because of the incredible warmth of the caregivers. We we very happy with our choice. Choose what's most important to you.

4. Can he/she keep two naps for as long as he needs? Or one nap for older kids? Or what if my kid is not a napper?

Many daycares phase out babies' morning nap by a year old, so they have all the kids on a similar napping schedule. But not all kids—you may have learned—possess the same sleep needs. My toddler needed that second nap until she was around 18 months old, other kids keep it on up to 2. Meanwhile, a friend's child gave up both naps before hitting 2.

The same question goes for older toddlers and preschoolers: Can she keep her nap as long as she wants it? Will other kids be napping? Where will she sleep? If my kid doesn't want to nap, where/what will he do?

5. How does potty training work?

You'll want to assess how supportive they are in the potty training process. At what age do they suggest introducing it? How do they encourage children to use the potty? Regular breaks? Will they need to continue to wear a diaper or pull-up? Can I make that call, or do you?

6. What is the sickness policy, and what types of illnesses have the kids had recently?

Most will follow state guidelines that typically require you to keep a child home for 24 hours if they've had any fever over 100, but you should feel them out about how this actually plays out. What's their threshold for clearing a kid to attend school? Do you need a doctor's note to return your kid to their care every time? Have they had frequent outbreaks of common kid illnesses like Coxsackie or just a couple of times?

7. How much outdoor time do they get? How much free play time?

I like my kids to have access to the outdoors daily where they can run around with other kids and make up silly games. Some people don't mind if it's less often or they may count stroller rides. I also like to know how often and what types of toys they have access to. Take a look around: Do you see blocks? Puzzles? Books?

8. Can I see your annual calendar?

Take a look at how many days off they have and how that matches up with your work schedule. Some have a weekly summer and winter vacation; some take multiple "professional" training days off plus EVERY holiday (federal, Christian, Jewish, Chinese), while others simply follow the local school district's schedule.

9. What is your snow day policy? How many snow days did you have last year?

Many daycares, as above, follow the school district's lead on this, so it might depend on how conservative or liberal your local schools are in calling for a snow day. But for others, they'll look out the window and make a gut call. There's a beloved YMCA daycare in my town that's known for its snow hardiness and annual calendar with just eight holidays. Their waiting list is many-months long. After all, your office is probably open, right?

10. How do you manage discipline like if my kid gets bit or hits another kid?

Ask this question to get a sense of how the daycare resolves problems, particularly aggression and the constant squabbles they get into. Are they yellers? Do they use time outs? Have you ever removed a child from the daycare for behavior issues? Whether your kid is the bully or receive, you'll want to know their general policy.

11. How flexible are your hours?

As a freelancer, I greatly appreciate a daycare that lets me occasionally swap our child care days around and doesn't mind if I bring my kids in late on some days or pick up early for swim lessons or some other activity. I also tend to look for daycares that allow some part-time hours in case our needs change. It may be more important to you that they have some wiggle room in the pick-up or drop-off deadline.

Most daycares need to set regular hours so they can plan their staffing, and of course, they don't want to deal with a parent who picks up late every day. However, if you ask, they might be willing to stay late once a week for you. Try to get a sense of their general flexibility. For example, I've known a daycare director that scolded parents for picking up their kid for a midday doctor appointment, because she felt it disrupted the child's day.

12. What's your vaccination policy?

Vaccination, and lack thereof, has been in the news a lot lately. Make sure your daycare matches up with your beliefs on this one, so you can keep your kids safe.

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13. And a question for you: Would you want to have coffee with them?

This one is from my mom and it's another good one that I didn't think to ask myself the first time around. You're actually going to interact with this individual more than you realize, so ask yourself: Will I enjoy seeing this person two times every day? Do I like him or her? Do we have a pretty easy rapport? You don't have to share your political views, but you might want to chat over a few parenting subjects to get a sense of their personality and general approach.

Issues will arise from time to time and you'll want to know that you and your child's daycare provider can easily chat about it and come up with a solution.

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