You run a million lists through your head all day, every day, but when it comes to what to ask for from a day care center, you're stumped. Especially if this is your first child care rodeo, it's much too easy to forget to ask something that really matters to you. You don't want to leave out any detail about your child's safety and well-being. Experts including Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), recommend you start with the following questions.
Bring this checklist with you when you visit the establishment and take notes if necessary.
How Qualified is the Center?
Start your search by going online to answer the basics and weed out the unwanted options. Make sure the day care center has been in business for several years, and has references, positive reviews and the necessary licenses. Visit performance review sites such as Care.com to see other parents' reviews for the provider, and always follow up on any references the center offers. Ideally, you should find a center that has gone through accreditation from NAEYC, as this is a reliable sign of a reputable center.
How Safe is the Center?
Do providers always place babies on their backs to sleep? Are sleeping areas clean and clear of potential distractions and hazards? Is a staff member with certified pediatric first aid training always present with each group of children? These are some of the things to keep an eye on when you visit a potential day care.
Carolyn Stolov, family life expert at Care.com, suggests parents look for certification posted on the wall, and find out the day care's evacuation plan in case of an emergency, including how often teachers practice with the children. "Ask teachers how they keep track of children when they transition to the playground or another classroom," Stolov says. "The best programs do face-to-name count before they leave to another location and do that same face-to-name count when they arrive at their next location."
Contact your state's child care licensing agency and get a copy of the center or family child care regulations. Licensees have to comply with current laws relating to the health, welfare and safety of children cared for.
Katie Hyatt, a single mother of two from San Diego, California, suggests looking for an emphasis on health and safety. "To be sure it is clean and secure, visit during a busy time so you can see how they operate when under pressure," she says. Look for teachers who are CPR certified and receive regular training. Do providers implement cleanliness and health standards for themselves (especially hands), surfaces and toys? Does the program have policies in place regarding regular hand washing, routine cleaning and sanitation of all surfaces in the facility? Be sure to ask about policies for bringing labeled food, diapers and bottles/sippy cups.
"Are the snacks and meals that are served nutritious, and is food prepared and stored safely?" Willer also recommends. This is just as paramount to your child's safety in the long-term, as those more obvious short-term concerns.
What Happens if Your Child is Sick?
"Is there is a clear plan for responding to illness, including how to decide whether a child needs to go home and how families will be notified?" says Willer.
Are children asked to stay home if they're sick? Will you be charged for days you need to keep your little one at home? It definitely turns into a bargain in most sick policy cases: You don't want sick kids around your kids, but you're likely going to be in a pinch if you have to keep your baby home for a runny nose. If you're not worried about a little immune system building, the more lax policies may not pose as much of a problem as having to stay home from work for a day or a week. Either way, if the facility doesn't have a clear plan and policy on sick kiddos, move on.
What is the Staff-to-Child Ratio?
Ask right away if there is space available to care for your child. The ideal ratio would be 1:5 for children two to three years old, 1:7 for 3 to 4 year olds and 1:15 for 5 year olds. The smaller the number is means more one-on-one care for your child. Another sign of a good fit is if the provider specializes in your child's age group. If you feel overwhelmed by the number of children in the center, your child undoubtedly will too, so move on.
Be sure that there is adequate space both in the classroom and on the playground for the number of children cared for. There should be 35 square feet per child in order for each to have enough room to play comfortably. Staff should be readily available during playground activities.
What is the Curriculum and Parenting Style?
Because the day care will take your place as caregiver when you're gone, it is imperative it enforces your basic rules in child development. Does it follow a similar feeding and sleeping schedule? What is its policy for TV watching? How do providers discipline your child?
"Additionally, look to make sure that the program has activities and learning goals to support all areas of children's development--are there opportunities for active physical play and movement as well as more quiet activities?" Willer recommends. "How does the program support children's social and emotional development as well as intellectual development?"
Don't forget to ask about potty-training procedures and how teachers handle toilet accidents, as these can be points of contention for many a parent. Discuss nap time, bringing comfort items and regular routines followed with the children.
"Good programs recognize the importance of strong partnerships with families," Willer says. "They know that you know your child best, and they will likely be eager to learn from you more about what makes your child unique and about the things that are important to you as a family. Share your concerns with the teacher and/or the program director. If you have an issue, bring it up--don't wait until it becomes a huge problem."
Children learn best when they feel secure, so look for providers to encourage experimentation and learning in each child at those children's pace. They should offer opportunities for exploration, structured and unstructured play, and observing new activities performed in ways they can learn from. Parents and teachers should continuously work together in these lessons, keeping ongoing discussion in regular chats, notebooks, letters home, etc. Ask about how providers track progress and challenges for each child.
What is the Transportation Situation?
If the day care provider uses a shuttle service to transport children, make sure its vehicles are properly certified and safety procedures are followed strictly by knowledgeable professionals. For 10 or more passengers, a certification label should be displayed on the vehicle, as required by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Children younger than 5 need an approved booster seat, and children 5 and older should be wearing safety fastening devices. There should never be an occasion for teachers to leave kids in the car unattended. If the center doesn't offer you the opportunity to inspect vehicles, ask for it. You may find surprising answers in the mess -- or lack thereof -- inside that tells you about how the providers operate when parents aren't watching.
What is the Visitation Policy?
Look for a center that offers an open door policy for parental visits. Some might ask that you refrain during nap time, which is typically fair, but you should never have to schedule an appointment to visit the people caring for your little one.
"Programs should have procedures in place that allow families [to] be able to visit any area of the facility during regular hours of operation," Willer says. "If access is barred for any reason, consider that a red flag and look elsewhere. Policies should be designed to protect children's health and safety. For example, with transportation, how does the program ensure that no child is accidentally left behind on a bus?"
Armed with these questions, you should be prepared to find the perfect day care situation for your child. But the question is: Will you be able to handle the first day?
Sheila Szabo is a freelance creative writer in San Diego, California. Her work can be found here.