It’s time to make one of the more important decisions that you’ll make as a parent – finding child care for your little one. You’ve done your due diligence. You’ve asked for recommendations from friends, checked state licensing to see which providers have good inspection records, and checked out local resource and referral services for families seeking child care. You’ve narrowed it down to several programs and it’s time to visit. How will you know which one to choose?
As you begin the process, remember that many programs have a waiting list for the infant room, so be sure to start your search early!
Give yourself plenty of time to make an informed decision.
Here are some things to take note of as you visit programs and at-home child care providers.
- Teacher-child ratios. This is the biggest indicator of quality care, which makes sense! Know your state standards and also be informed that the national standard (NAEYC accreditation) for best practice in infant care is 3-1 (1 caregiver for three babies) Not every child care center can afford this, but it’s optimum.
- Education and experience of teachers. Look for folks who have formal education in child development and lots of ongoing professional development. Those who have been at it a while are more likely to be confident and sure of their ability to handle challenges, like what to do when four babies get hungry or need to go down for a nap at the same time, or whether that runny diaper is indicative of illness or just the last meal. Those snap decisions made throughout the day on how to best care for your child are influenced by knowledge and experience.
- Group size. A classroom with fewer total children is best. With infants, you should see no more than 10 children to 2 caregivers. It would be OPTIMUM to see 6 children to 2 caregivers. Anywhere in between would be the range to look for. Ask about schedules – are all the children there all day long? Are there days or even times of day when there are fewer children? Are there additional caregivers who can come help if needed?
- Warmth and coziness of the classroom. Do you hear adults speaking gently and kindly to children? Is the décor pleasant? Is there natural beauty in the room, for example plants or an aquarium? Natural light? Is safety, nurturing and respect towards every child felt in the atmosphere of the room? Are cribs available for each child and are they away from noise and activity, while still visible and easily accessible?
- Few ‘baby containers’ like swings, carriers, etc. Babies need to be on the floor where they can move freely. Look for plenty of safe crawling space, lots of toys that “do something” when your baby plays with them, interesting things to look at and plenty of age-appropriate books. If you see babies in swings, car seats or bouncers, ask about it – how long will child be there? Why are they not on the floor where they move freely?
- Outdoor spaces that are designed specifically for infants. If that’s not available (and sometimes it’s not), is there soft grass where babies can be outdoors on a blanket? Are children taken outdoors for walks? How and when are they given the chance to be outside? There are lots of neurological benefits of being outdoors, even for our tiniest babies! Besides that, going outside generally makes everybody feel a little more content.
- Cleanliness. As you walk in the room, take a deep breath. How does it smell? Granted, there may be the temporary odor of dirty diapers, but overall what you should smell is cleanliness (not chemicals). Ask to see the diaper changing area, food/bottle prep area and cribs. Look for non-toxic cleansers, gloves, hand washing sinks stocked with liquid soap and paper towels, safety rails and locks on cabinets – just to name a few.
- Watch the babies. Are they gazing and/or looking towards their teachers? Is it evident that they are attached? With infants, depending on the time of day that you drop by, you may hear crying as needs are being met. This is normal. Crying for extended times is NOT! Crying that is being ignored is NOT! Even if they are unable to immediately attend to a crying child, teachers can speak gently to assure them they’ll be there to help as quick as they can.
- Watch the teachers. Are they tuned in to each child, even as they speak to you? When a baby initiates a smile, babble or gesture to them, do they acknowledge and respond? Can you see warmth and friendliness in their eyes and body language? This non-verbal communication is what your baby will be experiencing in your absence and you want it to be positive and nurturing.
- Trust your instincts! They are the strongest indicator of what is best for your child. Although you may be making this decision before your child is even born, stay alert. Watch your child’s responses and reactions to the environment. While getting as much information as you can is a major part of the decision process, learning to listen to and follow your gut reaction matters a lot, and an important part of your growth as a parent!
This is a lot to remember, so here’s a checklist that you can use as you visit different programs. Use it as a guide for checking out the the emotional climate, and as a guide for asking good questions. Taking good notes during every visit will help you remember the details later on when thinking through the decision.
There’s much to consider when looking at child care options. Fortunately there are lots of resources available for parents. Check out NAEYC. Child Care Aware also has lots of great information for you if you’d like to dig deeper.
And one last thing to remember – no decision is set in stone! If you enroll your child and after a while begin to feel uncomfortable for any reason, investigate. It may be a simple misunderstanding. Spend time in the classroom, observing throughout the day. Ask for a conference with the teacher. If that’s not satisfying, ask to speak with the director or owner. Do all you can to work it out, because moving from center to center will interfere with the attachment relationships that are so crucial to your baby’s social emotional development as they learn to trust the world around them.