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What is family child care?

1. Safety

If hiring a nanny or enrolling in a day care center isn’t right for your child, family child care may be the perfect fit. It’s a day care operated out of an owner’s home.

Parents choose family child care for a variety of reasons. It’s usually the least expensive form of child care. It offers a home-like setting, rather than a center one. Family child programs usually offer a mixed age group, with a collection of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, so it’s more like a family than a classroom — this diversity can be a great learning environment for kids of all ages. Although there are some differences, this option shares many characteristics with a traditional day care center.

Here are helpful tips from Patricia Dischler, president of the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC) and author of “From Babysitter to Business Owner,” Lynn Gibson, president of the Florida Family Child Care Home Association and owner of a family child care for about 30 years, and Carolyn Stolov, family life expert at, on the nine things to look for in this type of service.

Safety is the No.1 concern for parents when considering any type of child care. Gibson often tells parents: “You wouldn’t turn over your credit card to a stranger, nor would you want to hand your child over to a stranger.”

When you interview the caregiver and tour the home, keep safety issues in mind. Parents should ask whether the provider is trained in child development and currently holds infant and child CPR certification. Do caregivers keep up with regular training and certifications? The provider should follow all safety standards, such as always putting babies to sleep on their backs, keeping areas clear of hazards, washing hands, surfaces and toys and labeling all cups, bottles and food containers.

“You want to be comfortable with the person watching your child,” comments Stolov. She suggests that you “change up your schedule and show up at different times of day unannounced, so you can see what’s happening and make sure everything is safe.”

2. Licensing

When it comes to licensing for family day care, the rules are a little tricky. Some states use the term “licensed,” while others say “certified.” Certain states are very thorough and have many standards for family child care providers and other states only include very basic safety standards. Figure out the laws in your area by checking out this helpful state-by-state guide to day care licensing and regulation information from the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education.

“Parents should always look for providers who meet the regulations for their state,” reminds Dischler.

You can also check to see if the center is accredited by NAFCC, which means the center has already been thoroughly vetted (though you should also check it yourself). According to Stolov, “Parents should also call the licensor in their state to verify that the particular program is licensed, see if there are any complaints against the provider and see how often the licensor visits the program.”

Unregulated child care homes are a risk for parents and their children and should always be avoided.

“Also ask the provider who will be visiting the home during the day, as well as who lives in the home,” says Stolov. “Be sure that everyone in the home is background checked. No one should have contact with children unless it has been approved through the licensing department.”

3. Adequate space

There should be adequate space both indoors and outside for the number of children who are receiving care in the home. The standard used in most states is 35-square-feet per child.

4. Appropriate ratios

According to Stolov, family child care settings are usually much smaller than child care centers. Some just have the owner as the primary caregiver with about five children, while others have large group homes with around ten children, where there is also an assistant present. Ratios of adults to children vary by state; however, 1:5 for children 2-3 years old and 1:7 for children 3-4 years old should be a minimum standard. It should be evident the provider can care for the children and nurture each child’s development in language, cognitive, motor, social and self-help skills.

5. Solid reputation

Ask for references from parents whose children are currently attending the family care center. Search online for reviews and comments on the service. Both methods will allow you to check the reputation of the provider and make sure families are happy. When a family child care home has been in operation for many years, it’s a good sign quality care is provided.

6. Written policies

Providers should offer parents a written copy of the daily routine and policies governing sick children and behavioral expectations. Age-appropriate rules and consequences in line with your parenting philosophy will make your child feel at home.

7. Emergency procedures

While day cares often have multiple caregivers, a family child care program is usually just one provider. Stolov suggests asking what happens in case of an emergency and making sure those rules are written down. “If the caregiver gets sick in the middle of the day, is there someone on call and can you meet them? Are they background checked? Are they listed with the licensing department as part of the emergency plan the provider must submit?”

Also ask the provider what her emergency plans are. Does she practice fire drills with the kids, for example, and how often?

8. Open lines of communication

Gibson says the provider should be committed to working with parents as a team on issues that cross over from home to day care. Providers should also share concerns about the child’s development and tips to help parents deal with any problems the child may have.

“You have to feel comfortable bringing up issues and talking with the provider,” says Stolov. She suggests spending a day or a few hours at the home before your child attends. “See what a typical day looks like and how the provider handles behavior challenges and other things that come up when caring for young children. When checking references, ask the reference if they ever had to bring up a difficult issue with the provider and ask how the provider handled it. You want to find a provider that is flexible and open to partnering with you on the best way to care for your child.”

9. Compassionate caregivers

An atmosphere of love for children and constructive discipline will make children feel safe and enhance their emotional well-being.

Dischler believes these are the most important things that show parents they have found a great family child care home. “Providers who care for children in their home do more than set up an environment for children to learn, they create an environment for families to thrive,” she says.

Above all, Gibson recommends that you: “Look for someone who can look you in the eye and show you that they can offer you a great place for your child in a safe and clean environment with happy children.”

A great family child care provider will become a member of your family, helping raise your child in a loving manner to be kind, courteous, helpful, honest and respectful.