First 90 days of day care: How to know if a new center is right for your child

Feb. 13, 2019

The process of getting your child started in a great day care doesn’t automatically end once they’re enrolled. Like most humans, children aren’t huge fans of change, and that means there will be an adjustment period while they’re getting used to their new routine.

During the first few weeks and months, it’s important to keep a close eye on your child and ask your provider plenty of questions to get a feel for how things are going.

“The educators are the experts in terms of developmental theories and philosophies, but the real experts for the child are the parents so having that open line of communication is so important,” says Katrina Macasaet, a child development expert and content specialist for Zero to Three.

If you aren’t sure what to look for, here’s how to evaluate whether or not your child’s new day care is truly “the one.”

Give your child plenty of time to adjust

The first step, says Traci Sanders, a home child care provider and author of “Right at Home: A Parent's Guide to Choosing Quality Child Care,” is to let your child settle in before making any major evaluations.

“Give it time,” she says. “Thirty days is a good measure of how your child is going to acclimate to the environment.”

During this time, observe how your child behaves at day care and how they’re interacting with their caregivers and peers.

“Gauge it by how your child behaves when you pick him or her up in the evenings, not solely on their behavior upon drop-off,” Sanders says. “Watch your child without announcing your presence to see if he or she is interacting with toys or the other children.”

You could even show up early a few times or pop in for lunch to see how they’re doing.

“When my daughter first started day care,” says Brittany Levy, a mom of one from Milwaukee. “I left work early a few times just so I could see what was going on in class at a time when the day care wasn’t expecting parents to arrive. It gave me peace of mind because I could see that she was happy and playing, even though she was struggling at drop-off for the first few weeks.”

Communicate with your provider

Your care provider should give you summaries of your child’s day. Parents should be getting a report about their child every day. Everyday there should be an anecdote that caregivers can share. At my own son’s day care, they do this via phone app. I can open it up and see when and what he ate, how long he slept, how many times he went to the bathroom and photos from the day. They can even add notes to let me know how things went.

In addition to the daily updates and little chats you inevitably have at drop-off and pickup, your day care provider should also set aside a formal time to have a “parent-teacher conference” with you.

“Depending on the philosophy of the program, most centers will do something like a report to show how the children are progressing developmentally and how the program is supporting children as they reach their milestones,” says Macasaet.

A parent-teacher conference is also a good opportunity for you to gauge how your provider is connecting with your child. Does it seem like the provider is getting to know your child? Does it seem like the provider enjoys caring for your child?

“Providers deal with many children during the day, but a quality provider makes sure to spend quality time with each child and get to know his or her likes and dislikes, allergies, special toys or comfort items,” says Sanders. “Make sure the provider is bonding with your child, not just meeting his or her physical needs. Emotional needs are just as important.”

If the provider doesn’t schedule any sort of conference with you, it’s OK to ask if you can schedule a time to meet.

Check in with your child

Does your child seem happy at day care? Are they having fun when you come to pick them up? Are they starting to get excited about going in the morning? It will take time for them to get comfortable, but you should notice them slowly acclimating to their environment and bonding with their peers and teachers.

“I play the favorite game with my son,” says Tiffany Hart, a mom of three from Akron, Ohio. “At the end of the day, I ask him to tell me his favorite thing he did that day, favorite story he read, favorite food he ate and favorite friend. It helps me learn about what he’s doing all day, and I can tell from his answers if he had a good time.”

If your child is too young to answer questions about their day, pay attention to other details. Do they have a fresh diaper when you pick them up? Are they hungry or thirsty? Do they seem cranky and upset or happy and calm? You’re the expert on your child and you know when they’re acting happy and healthy.

Be aware of red flags

The vast majority of child care providers are committed to the well-being of the children they care for, but it’s still important for parents to be vigilant about looking for signs of a bad experience or, in extreme cases, abuse.

“If every time you pick your child up for a few weeks in a row, he or she is off in a corner playing alone, not interacting with the provider or the other children, that is something to be concerned about and be vigilant about,” says Sanders.

Sanders also warns parents to look out for:

  • Bruises

  • Sudden regressions in potty training or sleep habits, such as starting to wet the bed or asking to sleep in your bed when that’s not something they normally do

  • Fearful behavior towards their provider

  • Violent or aggressive attempts to keep you from leaving at drop-off

  • A lack of care or interaction with your child on the part of the provider

Sometimes a day care isn’t a fit for reasons that have nothing to do with abuse or a bad experience. It could be that the schedule or curriculum ends up not being a match for your child. Or perhaps the provider and your child don’t click. No matter what, trust your instincts. You and only you know what is the best situation for your child.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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