Choosing a healthy, safe place for your child to thrive and learn is a daunting decision. But take a deep breath. Quality options for daycare and preschool are out there. It’s important to gather information, do the legwork, and ultimately trust your gut.
Get the Facts: Narrow the Possibilities
Begin your search early. Ann Douglas, author of Choosing Childcare for Dummies, suggests embarking upon your quest between eight weeks and a year before your back-to-work date.
Contact your local child care referral agency by checking Child Care Aware, a national consumer education parent hotline (1-800-424-2246) and web delivery system ( The National Child Care Information Center (1-800-616-2242 or is also a good start.
Ask the referral agency about licensing requirements in your area and how to collect information about complaints or licensing violations. Ask about financial assistance programs for which you may qualify.
Home DayCare or Center?
Home daycare may make sense. Providers tend to have flexible hours (especially helpful for atypical work schedules). They may have less rigid schedules and policies which set you at ease. If it is important that your caregiver be open to lots of individual accommodations (i.e. irregular naptimes), a home provider might suit you and your child best. Some home providers are regulated, but many are not so it’s a personal choice.
Licensed daycare centers offer many advantages. Centers may hire certified early childhood educators with training in child development as well as clearly outlined policies. Also, having more than one caregiver on the premises provides peace of mind (especially if you’re concerned about TV watching or unfamiliar adults in a home setting). Centers offer reliability so you won’t have to scramble for care if one caregiver is ill or on vacation. The spaces in a center are typically kid friendly and designed with safety in mind. Because of government regulation, child to caregiver ratios, safety requirements, and criminal record checks are standard.
Do the Homework: Visit and Assess Quality
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends you consider the following 13 guidelines as you evaluate the quality of a provider:
*Supervision. Are children supervised at all times, even when they are sleeping?
Is discipline positive, clear, consistent, and fair?
*Handwashing/Diapering. Hands should be scrubbed with soap and water for at least 10 seconds and then rinsed and dried. Faucets should be turned off with a paper towel.
*Director Qualification. Director should hold a B.A. degree and have worked in child care at least two years.
*Teacher Qualifications.  Lead teacher should hold a B.A. degree in a child-related field and have worked in child care for at least a year.
*Child:Staff Ratio. One family home caregiver should care for only two babies. The fewer children each caregiver care for, the better.
*Immunizations. Does the provider have records proving that other children are up to date?
*Toxic Substances. Are cleaning supplies and pest killers kept far from children?
*Emergency Plan. Are first aid kits and emergency plans in place?
*Fire Drills. Are these practiced monthly?
*Child Abuse. Can caregivers be seen by others at all times so a child is never alone with one caregiver? Have all caregivers gone through a background check? Have all caregivers been trained to prevent, recognize, and report child abuse?
*Medication. Is it kept out of reach and labeled properly?
*Staff Training. Have all caregivers been trained in first aid and CPR?
*Playground. Is it developmentally appropriate, clean, and inspected regularly for safety?
Quality Preschools
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) suggests the following 10 signs are indicative of a good preschool:
1. Children spend most of their time playing and working with materials or with other children.
2. Children have access to various activities throughout the day.
3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day.
4. The classroom is decorated with children's original artwork and projects.
5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences.
6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time to play and explore.
7. Worksheets are used rarely, if at all.
8. Children have an opportunity to play outside in a safe play area every day.
9. Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups.
10. Curricula are adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help.
Trust Your Judgment: Notice your Gut
One of the most helpful factors to consider when choosing a provider is the interaction between caregiver and children. Is there good communication? What is the caregiver’s interpersonal style? Notice how the interaction makes you feel. Is it a place you would look forward to coming each day?
In order to find the best fit for your child, consider how the provider’s philosophy of child rearing, discipline, education, and nurturing meshes with your own. As Ann Douglas says in her book, “You can’t count on anyone else to guarantee your child’s health, safety, and well-being in a particular child care setting. Like it or not, the buck stops with you.” Do you agree with how a provider believes your child should be guided and cared for each day?
You should feel a sense of trust in the caregiver/program and that your child will learn and grow happily within a particular environment.
Michele Ranard has two children, a master’s in counseling, and a background in teaching preschool and running a daycare. Visit her at