If the thought of leaving your baby with someone else makes you uneasy, you're not alone. It's a big decision to offload some child care duties, especially if this is your first baby.
But if you're planning to go back to work, 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 type of child care is run out of providers' homes, often as they care for their 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. (A nanny may be more cost effective if you have multiple children.)
- Reliability: Most centers stay open for about 12 hours a day to support a variety of parent schedules.
- Specific to group day care: The staff is trained and licensed. And because there's more than one caregiver, there's always a sub.
- Specific to home day care: Typically 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.
Downsides to day care
There are some drawbacks to putting your baby in day care, including:
- Cost: While day care centers are less expensive than private child care, it's often still pricey unless it's subsidized by the government or your company.
- Exposure to illnesses: Because they're exposed to more kids, babies may get sick more often than those in another child care setting — though that is just a precursor of what's to come in preschool. In fact, early germ exposure may actually toughen up your baby's immune system (which may mean fewer colds and infections later on in childhood).
- Specific to group day care: There may be less flexibility in scheduling than in a more informal setting, and the center may be closed on holidays when you're working if it follows a public school calendar.
- Specific to home day care: Some providers are unlicensed and don't need to have child care training — which means their centers aren't regularly inspected for quality and may not have to abide by group size, child-to-caregiver ratios, activities and materials. And if the caregiver is sick, there's usually no backup at the ready, so you'll need an on-call sitter (or a very understanding boss).
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 well before you plan to go back to work; in fact, you probably 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 to ask 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.
- Ask about their accreditation. For group day care centers, those accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) meet even higher standards, including a good ratio of adults to babies; low turnover in caregivers; and a philosophy that promotes the health, safety and development of kids in its care. For in-home day care, if it's accredited by the National Association for Family Child Care, the provider has met higher standards.
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.
Questions to ask every day care center
- 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.
- What's your accreditation? While a state license can't guarantee that your baby will get lots of attention from a qualified and loving caregiver, it does boost your odds and mean the provider has met government-set health and safety standards. Learn more about your individual state's licensing requirements at the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education or at Child Care Aware of America.
- 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.
- What qualifications and experience do you have? Caregiver(s) should be trained in CPR and first aid. At a group center, the director should have a degree in early childhood education, while teachers should have training in that field or early childhood development. In family day cares, training can be hard to find — but you definitely want someone who has hands-on experience with kids your baby's age (the caregiver's own kids count).
- 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.
- How 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. You may also want to ask if you can provide your own baby food.
- What schedule do you follow? The day care could have a set nap schedule all the children follow, or they may accommodate the schedule you come up with as a parent.
In addition to the questions above, you may want to ask the following open-ended questions:
- What would you do if my baby kept reaching for something after you told him no?
- Do you believe in disciplining bad toddler behavior with consequences or time-outs?
- How do you handle a baby who cries because he wants to be held all the time?
- What happens when two kids want to play with the same toy?
- What do you do if a baby refuses to eat?
- What type of baby food do you feed babies who've started solids?
Questions to ask a group day care center
- How long have the teachers been on staff? High turnover is a bad sign — it could mean the workers aren't paid well and/or aren't qualified for child care.
- How is the staff screened? All day care workers should have had complete health and criminal background checks. Ask if you can see proof of this if you come to inspect the facility.
Questions to ask an in-home day care
- Who else will be in the house when my child is there? Get the scoop on all adults, teens and elders. Find out what roles they'll play in your child's care and, if they'll be involved, what kind of experience they have with kids. Ask about pets too, in case your child has allergies or a fear of animals.
- What about policies for personal emergencies and time off? Find out what the caregiver does with kids when personal emergencies arise that require her to leave, as well as how many vacation days she takes and how much advance notice she gives you before her days off.
- Is there a backup option? Don't be surprised if there is none — but it's good to know the deal beforehand so you can have a plan in place.
- Does your insurance cover my child? Of course, you hope you'll never need it, but find out if the caregiver's homeowner's insurance covers injuries to any child in her care.
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. Do staff members 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.
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
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
Communicating with your day care provider
Having a good feeling about the day care you've chosen for your baby is like knowing you've put together a dream team. But don't drop the ball after drop-off. Foster a successful caregiver relationship by being like all good coaches — keep your team members motivated and informed.
Play by the rules
The most important — pick up your little one on time. But on those rare days that you can't (we're all human), call as soon as you can to warn your day care provider that you'll be late.
Being on time with payments and any forms you need to turn in (like medical health releases) will also help foster a great caregiver relationship, as will keeping your baby home when she's sick. You know better than anyone that child care is a tough job, so make things as easy as possible for your infant caregivers.
Tune in to the right channels
Find out how your day care provider plans to keep you in the loop about special events and your baby's progress. If your baby's in group day care, check to see if there's a regular newsletter, e-mails or a central bulletin board.
Does the center offer a video-cam, where parents can log on to a website and see their child playing? Will you get emails or verbal reports from the family day care provider?
Remember, you're on the same team. Give your day care provider the scoop on anything that will make her job easier: your baby's likes and dislikes, the best way to calm her down, her food and nap preferences.
Also, let her know about anything new going on that may affect your little one during the day (like your tot just started teething or she didn't sleep well last night).