If you’ll be returning to work after your baby is born, you probably know that open daycare spots can go faster than ice cream melts on a hot summer day. Still, for your child’s well-being and your own peace of mind, you’ll want to give yourself time to get it right.

Starting a few months before you’re ready, “visit three to five daycare programs,” says Kris Murray, author of The Ultimate Childcare Marketing Guide and a consultant to the childcare industry. To narrow your selection, here are the top questions Murray suggests asking daycare providers.

1 What activities will my child do? 

The code word to listen for is “curriculum.” With emerging research about early brain development, top childcare 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. For example, if the theme is insects, your toddler might dress up as a bug for the drama unit, paint a bug for the art unit and learn about insects in the computer lab for the technology unit.

2 What’s the teacher-to-child ratio?

It’s important for your child to get plenty of attention. Babies and toddlers 12 months old and younger need a ratio of 1:4 (one adult per four infants). For toddlers 12 to 28 months old, the ratio should be 1:3 (one instructor per three children). Look for class sizes of 10 to 12 children or fewer. Even with plenty of adults, a larger group of toddlers can feel chaotic.

3  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.

4 How will I know what my child did all day? 

Some centers distribute a daily activity sheet, detailing what your child had for snack and how often her diaper was changed. Many daycare centers offer e-mail or text messages two to four times daily. It’s a big plus. “Real time streaming helps you stay connected to your child’s day,” Murray says. When you pick your child up, you can say, “Look at the cute pictures I got from you today,” and talk about them together.

5  What are the qualifications of your caregivers? 

“Ask for a list of the teachers, including 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. Lead teachers should have five to seven years of experience. With practice comes the competence to handle challenging issues, such as behavioral problems or potty training.

6  Are drop-off and pick-up hours flexible? 

If you work from home sometimes or need a half-day of help here and there, look for a daycare option that works with your nontraditional schedule. Daycare that’s less than full-time is a growing trend. “For a monthly membership fee, many daycare centers will allow you to drop off your child whenever you want,” Murray says.

7 What’s the security situation? 

Most childcare programs are safer than they were five years ago. Some now have biometrics at the entrance. Instead of punching in a code at the door, you place your finger on a pad to enter the building. “Stricter regulations on safety and background checks are now required in many states,” Murray says.

When touring a daycare center, ask whether the children are monitored by a secure webcam. Is the feed distributed to the director’s office? (Good.) Can you have access to the feed as well? (Double good.) Not only does camera surveillance provide peace of mind, 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.”)

8 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 childcare center should support the full health of the child, which includes spending time in nature and being active.

9  What’s your disaster recovery and emergency policy?

If there’s an emergency at the school, you want to know that teachers have been properly trained to respond quickly and effectively. Every teacher should be trained in CPR, too.

10  Ask yourself: Am I comfortable with the environment?

Spend an hour or two hour at your top picks observing a classroom when the kids are awake (not at nap time). What’s the vibe? The center should feel open and 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.

Finally, confirm your selection by finding out what others have to say. Review testimonials on the center’s Facebook page and review sites such as Yelp. “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.”


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