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How to Find the Best Day Care

Finding the right child care center can be stressful. You don’t just want a babysitting service -- you want somewhere safe, nurturing and educational (yes, even if she’s just a baby). Here’s how to know.

Photo: Thinkstock / The Bump

“Choosing a day care center is one of the most important decisions that a parent is going to make,” says Linda Hassan Anderson, senior director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Academy. She recommends that parents look for a day care that meets the highest standard of care and nurturing of child development. That’s because the early years are a crucial time in baby’s brain development. You want somewhere that will help baby -- as she grows into a toddler and then a pre-preschooler -- develop social skills, build relationships with teachers and other kids, figure out how to regulate her emotions and learn a lot. Those are just some of the benefits of a high-quality day care.

Where do I start looking for a good day care?

Most moms ask for day care recommendations from family and friends -- this is an excellent starting point. You might also scope out some possibilities in your area, since convenience is definitely a factor. Anywhere you consider should be a licensed facility that offers a safe and clean environment.

You can use the NAEYC search to find a local NAEYC-accredited child care center. These are considered the best of the best, since centers have to meet rigid standards to get NAEYC accreditation and must go through a long approval process. If there isn’t an accredited facility in your area, ask your center how it matches up to the standards the NAEYC uses for accreditation, offered in its “Guide for Families.”

If you’re considering home-based child care instead of a center, you can use the National Association for Family Child Care’s accredited providers search tool to find a provider that meets the highest possible standards for in-home child care.

For listings of state-licensed facilities, use the interactive map from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), which provides inspection reports, state fact sheets and information on day care and family child care regulations.

What features are important for my child’s day care to have?

Know that there are no federal standards for day care centers and the licensing and regulations vary from state to state, so you’ll also have to do some of your own research.

Are you thinking, Research? But it’s near my home, I can afford it, and the teachers seem nice. Why do I have to do research? Richard Fiene, PhD, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University, says this is common thinking for parents. “If they find a place that’s convenient and affordable, they’ll put blinders on and not see certain things that are important,” he says.

Of course, feeling comfortable having your child there is very important, but Fiene recommends also gathering as many sources of information about a center as possible and using more objective standards to assess it than just a gut reaction. That’s because you also want a place that will encourage your child’s development and help her get ready for school. Fiene compiled findings from over 40 years of research to identify the most important attributes of a quality day care center in his “Thirteen Indicators of Quality Child Care” guidelines. NACCRRA used these indicators in its “Is This the Right Place for My Child?” checklist, which you can take with you and fill out when you visit a day care center. It will help you better gauge its quality. The list includes:

Constant supervision and good teacher-to-child ratios

A caregiver should watch your child at all times, even when she’s sleeping. Ask what the ratios at the center are. Ideally, there should be one caregiver per three to four infants or young toddlers, and one caregiver per four to six older toddlers or six to nine preschoolers. These ratios ensure that your child will get the one-on-one attention that’s crucial to her social and emotional development.

Teachers with degrees

Teachers should be creative and intelligent, says Fiene, but they also should have education and training. So be sure to ask if the teachers and administrators have early childhood education degrees and what sort of professional development they regularly get. A good center’s staff should be required to attend training each year to sharpen their skills.

A safe and healthy environment

Find out the program’s health and safety policies and procedures. A good day care center will happily share its policies on everything from immunizations (should be up-to-date in all children) to hand washing, dealing with sick children and diaper changing. You want to be sure that each adult in the center has had a background check and is certified in CPR and first aid. There should be plans in place for a lost, sick or injured child and regularly practiced emergency plans for fires, floods and other natural disasters.

If you’re considering a family child care provider (a provider that cares for several children in their home), be sure to triple-check about safety policies. Hassan Anderson says center-based care isn’t necessarily better than home-based care but cautions that family child care providers are less strictly regulated. One scary stat: A study published in the American Sociological Review revealed that the fatality rate for children who receive child care in private homes is 16 times higher than the fatality rate for children in child care centers.

You’re on the same page

Does the day care welcome parents and their ideas? And do you know its values and agree with them? “You want a partnership relationship, and you want the staff at the day care center to represent the same core values as you,” says Hassan Anderson. Shared values and clear, frequent communication between a program and parents is vital. Parent conferences should be held so that the teacher or caregiver can share a child’s developmental progress with the parents and also communicate goals. At all times, parents should be able to visit the facility, and their input should be valued. “Parents should be able to drop in at any point,” says Fiene. If there are only designated times when parents can visit kids, that may be a red flag.

A focus on learning and development

Look for a well-organized space that’s stocked with a rich variety of age-appropriate materials and toys. Ask the staff about the daily and weekly schedules. There should be lots of activities like art, music, outdoor play, reading and dramatic play. Reading should be included in the program’s schedule at least twice a day.

High standards and desire to improve

Some states offer different approval levels for child care programs, such as registered or licensed. Look for a licensed facility, since they’re required to meet high standards.

Also, some states offer quality ratings; if yours does, try to find a highly rated facility. Seek out a program that’s always looking for new ways to improve. Does the administration ask parents and staff to evaluate the program? Do they have outside evaluators observe the program? Is there a training plan for staff professional development? If the answer to those questions is yes, chances are that the program is dedicated to providing a high level of care.

There’s a waiting list. How do I get us in?

Many day care centers have waiting lists, especially NAEYC-accredited centers, since less than 10 percent of centers have the designation. “These programs often have long waiting lists -- plan ahead and get on the waiting list well in advance”, says Fiene. Then, be sure to stay in touch. Make frequent contact with administrators so you and baby don’t fall off the radar.

watch: how to find the perfect day care

Plus, more from The Bump:

Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave

Differences Between a Nanny and Day Care

How to Trust Baby's Caregiver

-- Kelly Alfieri

See More: 2nd Trimester , 3rd Trimester , Baby Basics , Dads and Dads-to-Be , Mommy Life , Newborn Basics