10 Questions to Ask When Choosing Child Care

For your child’s well-being and your own peace of mind, it pays to be picky about day care.
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If you plan to return to work after your baby is born, you probably know that open day care spots can go faster than ice cream melts on a hot day. But for your child’s well being and your own peace of mind, it pays to be picky about day care.  

Waitlists are the normal for most child care centers in Charlotte. Many centers allow couples to pay the application fee and be placed on a waitlist before they are expecting to help ensure a spot when the time arrives. If you are interested in full-time day care, start touring centers you are interested in and get on waiting lists as soon as you find out you are pregnant.

“Visit three to five day care programs,” says Kris Murray, author of “The Ultimate Childcare Marketing Guide” and a consultant to the child care industry. To narrow your selection, here are the top questions Murray suggests asking day care providers that can help you know if you’ve found the right place or if you need to keep looking.

What activities will my child do? The code word to listen for is “curriculum.” With emerging research about early brain development, top child care programs aren’t glorified babysitters. They’re full-featured learning environments, even at the infant level because learning starts from birth. 

“There are all sorts of age-appropriate curriculums available now, from baby sign language in an infant room to early reading, nature, science, art, technology and drama programs for toddlers,” Murray says. Each program is typically organized into themes. If the theme is insects, for example, your toddler might be asked to dress up as his favorite bug for the drama unit, paint a bug for the art unit and learn about insects in the computer lab for the technology unit. It may all just look like fun and games, but that’s the idea. “Children learn best through play,” Murray says.

What’s the teacher to child ratio? It’s important for your child to get plenty of attention, especially the younger she is. Babies and toddlers 12 months old and younger need an adult to child ratio of no more than 1:4 (one adult per four infants). For toddlers 12 to 28 months old, the ratio can range from 1:3 to 1:6. Small class sizes of 10 to 12 children or less are preferred. Even if there are plenty of adults to children, a larger group of toddlers can feel chaotic.

What’s your policy about unannounced visits? The best answer is, “No problem. We have an open-door policy.” Impromptu parent visits should always be welcome, Murray says. After signing your child up, you should be able to drop by anytime.

How do I know what my child does all day? Some day care centers distribute a daily activity sheet detailing what each child experienced that day, such as what she had for snack and how often her diaper was changed. Even better is paperless communication. Many day care centers offer email or text messages two to four times daily, often with pictures.

“Real-time streaming helps you stay connected to your child’s day,” Murray says. When you pick your child up, you can say show them the cute pictures you received via email or text and talk about them together.

What are the qualifications of the caregivers? Lead teachers should have five to seven years of experience. With practice comes the competence to handle challenging issues, such as fighting and other behavioral problems or potty training in a toddler program.

Teacher bios may be available on the day care website, or “Ask for a list of the teachers, which includes the number of years of experience they’ve had in the field, their degree (in early childhood education for the lead teacher) or the training they’ve had,” Murray says.

Are drop-off and pick-up hours flexible? If you work from home sometimes or need half-day help here and there, look for a day care option that can work with your nontraditional schedule. Day care that’s less than full-time is a growing trend.

“For a monthly membership fee, many day care centers will allow you to drop off your child whenever you want,” Murray says.

What’s the security situation? Most child care programs are safer than they were five years ago. Some now, for example, have biometrics — requiring approved guests to place a finger on a pad to enter the building — instead of punching in a code at the door.

“Stricter regulations on safety and background checks are now required in many states,” Murray says.

When touring a day care center, ask whether the children are monitored by a secure webcam. Is the feed distributed to the director’s office so there’s oversight of what’s happening in the classroom? (Good.) Can you have access to the feed as well? (Double good.) Not only does camera surveillance provide peace of mind because you can see what’s going on, it allows you to engage in your child’s day (“I saw you help Sam pick up his crayons. That was so nice of you.”)

“You get to spy with a positive purpose,” Murray says.

How often do the kids get to go outside? Beyond extremely hot or cold weather, “there’s no excuse for children not to get outside every day,” Murray says. Your child care center should support the full health of the child, which includes spending time in nature and being active.

What’s your disaster recovery and emergency policy? If there’s a fire or disaster at the school, you want to know that teachers are properly trained to quickly and effectively respond to get every child out. Every teacher should be trained in CPR too.

Ask yourself: Am I comfortable with the environment? After you’ve narrowed it down to your top picks, spend an hour observing a classroom when the kids are awake. What’s the vibe? The day care center should feel open and interactions warm-hearted. Teachers should look like they’re happy to be there and engaged with the children. If you get a good feeling about the place, chances are your child will like it too because he will pick up on your satisfaction.

Finally, confirm your selection by finding out what everyone else has to say. Review testimonials from other parents on the day care center’s Facebook page and review sites such as Yelp, or ask neighbors and friends for recommendations.

“Sometimes there are disgruntled employees or an occasional unhappy parent,” Murray says.

If you see 10 great reviews and one negative one, you’re probably fine. Look for a preponderance of positive.”

Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer who specializes in health, health care, parenting nutrition and lifestyle topics.