Day Care 101

Day Care 101: How to Choose the Best Day Care Facility for Your Family

toddler playing with lego blocks

If you’re considering putting your baby in day care, here’s what you need to know — from benefits and downsides to the questions you should ask and what to look for in a facility.

If the thought of leaving your baby with someone else all day, every work day, makes you want to never leave your baby at all, you're not alone. It's a big decision, especially if this is your first baby.
But if you're planning to go back to your 9-to-5, you're in good company: According to some estimates, more than 70 percent of all primary caregivers work outside the home. And that also means there are plenty of excellent child care options, from nannies to babysitters and more.
One of your best options is day care, either through a group center or home day care. Many centers offer exceptional care with licensed, trained caregivers in an environment where your little one will get valuable socialization with other kids her age.
Here's what you need to know about day care, from the benefits and downsides to questions to ask potential providers and what to look for when you visit a day care facility.

Types of day care facilities

A day care is a facility where parents drop children off, usually for a full day, with other kids of varying ages. You have a couple of options:

  • Group day care:These facilities are state-licensed and are usually run similarly to a school, with kids of varying ages cared for in groups. Some of these are run by employers themselves.
  • In-home day care: This child care is run out of the provider's home, often as she cares for her own children at the same time. Not all states require in-home daycare providers to be licensed, so make sure you find out about the regulatory requirements before sending your child (or while researching your options).

Benefits of day care

A good day care program can offer some significant advantages:

  • Continuous care: Most child care centers offer care from the early months of infancy through toddlerhood, and sometimes even beyond.
  • Education: A well-organized program is geared to your tot's development and growth.
  • Socialization: Your baby will get lots of face time with other little ones.
  • Cost: If you're planning to go back to work and need someone to watch after your child while you're away, day care tends to be less expensive than hiring a nanny (although a nanny may be more cost effective if you have multiple children).
  • Reliability: Most centers stay open for about 12 hours to support a variety of parent schedules.
  • Specific to group day care: Staff is trained and licensed. And because there's more than one caregiver, there's always a sub.
  • Specific to home day care: There are fewer children than you'd find at a group day care center — which may mean more personal attention and less exposure to illness.

How to choose a day care

Depending on where you live, you may need to leave yourself a little more time to find a day care.
It's a good idea to start looking at least two months before you plan to go back to work; if you live in a big city you might even want to start checking out your options before your baby even arrives. Here are a few steps to take:

  • Do your research. Get recommendations from other parents (at work and among friends) and your pediatrician. If you don't know other parents, consider asking those you meet in your OB-GYN or pediatrician's waiting room, the playground or a mommy-and-me class. You can also check online resources for childcare referral services or with the state regulatory agency.
  • Interview centers. Screen centers and in-home day care providers over the phone (see questions below). If the center's hours are inconvenient or the staff isn't forthcoming, scratch it off the list of places to visit.
  • Check the center out in person. Once you've narrowed down your choices, visit in person and see if it checks off all the basics (again, see below). Then trust your gut: If something doesn't seem right to you, it probably isn't right for your baby, either.
  • Check references. Take the time to call former and current clients to find out how happy they and their kids are with their experience. As tempting as it is to rely on the glowing letters of recommendation that providers may supply, don't. Letters are easily edited (or even forged).
  • Drop by unannounced. Before you make your final choice, consider stopping by unexpectedly on another day to get a truer picture of what the group day care center is like when the staff hasn't been prepped. If the center doesn't allow unscheduled visits of any kind, you may want to cross it off your list.

Questions to ask a day care

Once you've got a few options in mind from your pediatrician and other references, get a feel for the places you're considering over the phone by asking the questions below.

  • What's your cost (tuition and application fee) and schedule? If these answers are way out of line with your budget or schedule, it's an easy way to eliminate a provider from your list.
  • Is there a waiting list? Some day cares, especially for infants and younger babies in larger cities, have long waiting lists (the better to start looking earlier).
  • How many children will you care for at once? Because babies and young toddlers need lots of attention, be sure the facility sets limits. Although ratio requirements vary by location, you should look for more trained adults for groups of younger children.
  • What's your child care philosophy? Make sure you're comfortable with the caregiver's policies on early education, discipline, soothing and feeding.
  • Are parents involved? Are parents invited to participate in the program in some way? And if it's a group center, is there a parent board that makes up policy? Will you be required to participate, and if so will it fit into your schedule?
  • What are your policies regarding immunizations? It's possible that day cares you're considering, especially if they're unlicensed, don't require kids to be fully immunized. Steer clear of those with lax rules on vaccinations.
  • What are health requirements for caregivers? They should have had complete medical checkups, including a TB test, and received all their vaccinations.
  • AHow are sick kids handled? The provider should have clear-cut guidelines about sick kids staying home and a time frame for parents to fetch tots who become ill under their care. (When in doubt, parents can reference the AAP's guidelines for keeping kids home from child care.)
  • What do you serve kids to eat? All meals and snacks should be wholesome, safe and appropriate for the ages of the kids being served. Parental instructions regarding breast milk, formula, solids and meal schedules should be followed. Bottles should never be propped.

What to look for when you visit day care

Once you've screened your day care options, schedule a visit at three to five group or in-home day care centers. Make sure you see the following features before you enroll your baby:

Happy children and staff

You want to see alert, content, clean babies in spacious rooms, with a quiet area where they can nap in separate cribs (and according to their own schedules). Caregivers should genuinely seem energetic, patient and genuinely interested in the kids. Visit toward the end of the day to get a more accurate picture of what the center is like than you would first thing in the morning.

A stimulating environment

Look for lots of verbal and physical interaction between kids and caregivers. Does staff get down on the floor and interact with kids? Are the kids engaged (and not zoned out, looking off into the distance)? Check as well for age-appropriate toys that are in good shape. And ask for a rundown of the daily activities, which should include lots of singing, talking, reading and dancing as well as on-the-floor playtime activities.

Separation of age groups

Babies under 12 months shouldn't be mingling with toddlers and older children — bigger tots can be pretty rambunctious and haven't yet mastered being gentle with infants.

Locked doors

Your child can't come and go as she pleases at home, so she shouldn't be able to freely roam (or leave!) the day care center either. Adult visitors should also be closely monitored so only staff and authorized grown-ups who are there to pick up and drop off can enter.

A clean and healthy setting

A well-run group day care center spells out its health and sanitation rules on a sign, and then follows them:

  • Caregivers wash hands after each diaper change
  • The diapering and food prep areas are kept separate and scrubbed after each use
  • Feeding utensils are washed in a dishwasher or are disposable
  • Bottles are prepared under sanitary conditions
  • Teething rings, pacifiers and washcloths shouldn't be shared
  • Toys are rinsed off with a sanitizing solution, and/or each child gets a separate box
  • All children and adults wash hands when entering the classroom
Safety measures

Make sure that the day care provides a safe environment for kids by taking the same safety precautions you do at home. There should be:

  • No choking hazards, including small toys or playthings that can break apart into small pieces
  • No pillows or fluffy bedding in cribs; babies should be put to sleep on their backs
  • Gates on open stairways
  • Window guards on upstairs windows
  • Spic-and-span kitchen and bathroom and (ideally) an enclosed outdoor space for play
  • Clear floors (i.e., not littered with toys)
  • Smoke detectors, clearly marked exits and fire extinguishers