Once my family made the choice to use a childcare center for our then-four-month-old, I agonized over how to find the right place. Thankfully, I found a great place where I feel my son is thriving and we have great communication with the caregivers, so I thought I would share my selection process.
1. Start at the right time.
When is that? As soon as you know that you will possibly need a daycare center. If you reserve a spot and decide when it’s time to start that you want to go in another direction, you can always cancel. In some areas, finding a daycare is hyper-competitive — if you are living in one of those areas, you likely know that already. Even in the non-NYC suburban areas of the country, however, it’s a good idea to get on a waiting list or reserve a spot once you get past the first trimester of your pregnancy. Do not panic if you didn’t start the process that early, though — it’s a suggestion, but you can still find the right place for your child. But do start looking as soon as you know you might need it.
2. Create a “master list” of in-home and other day care options in your area.
Most states have a list of licensed child care centers — this is a great place to start your search. I recommend creating a spreadsheet where you list the basics — name of center/in-home daycare, contact name, phone number, Web site, address, a column for comments, and a “status” column.
3. Visit each center’s incident reports and Web sites.
Many state licensing databases also include public “incident” reports and licensing records for licensed centers. Take the time to review these. Not every incident report will be a red flag — there are misunderstandings, of course, and incidents from awhile ago may have been remedied by a change in management. But some may hit your gut instinct, which I always believe is worth listening to. (One of the centers I found in my search had an incident report on file from when the center’s owner placed a toddler in a Pack-n-Play then tied a baby gate over the top so the toddler would lie down for his nap — way too creepy for me.) You may remove some of the listings on your spreadsheet based on this information alone. (Tip: don’t delete the listing — put “Poor incident report” or something similar in comments and color the status box red for that center — this will save you re-research time should you need to revisit your list in the future). You should also visit each center’s web site to get a feel for things. Some won’t have a site at all (particularly true for in-home daycare centers) or place much priority on a professional site, but those that do have a web (or Facebook) presence can still give you insight into what the center is like.
4. Ask around!
Read online reviews (but take them with a grain of salt — like any other business, there are going to be disgruntled parents out there who may have grudges against particular centers, or there may be positive reviews seeded by center employees) and talk to friends who have children. Also consider checking with your pediatrician’s office, your place of worship, etc. to see if people in those places might have referral ideas.
5. Prepare a simple list of questions for your initial phone calls. Do they have a spot available for your child when you will need it? Do they have full-time and part-time options for your child’s age, or just full-time? If you are cloth diapering, or if your child has allergies, will they be accommodating? How do they handle payments — weekly by check, monthly, by credit card, ACH debit, online, etc.? As you develop questions, keep the list relatively simple and definitely stick to your principles, but be aware of where you are open to compromise. If you know you have to have a center that offers infant sign language, that will necessarily limit your options — but if you think your child needs that, that’s okay.
Once you have a reasonable list of possibilities, start calling. Keep in mind you might not get all your questions answered the first time you call — many smaller centers do not have the staff to have someone in charge of answering telephones, so you might get a busy worker on the phone. Be prepared to make an arrangement to call back when the director or head of the center is available to talk.
7. Make visits. Once you start finding sites that have openings for your child, set up a time to visit each one. Only by actually going there can you get a sense of whether it will be the right fit for your child. You can see whether the facilities are kept clean, whether a TV is left on during the day, etc. You can meet the staff, and see how the children are doing (but don’t be dissuaded just because you see some babies/kids crying — some kids just cry a lot!)
What are your tips for finding the right daycare?