I like to start any discussion of childcare by pointing out that I firmly believe that child care encompasses far more than routine care. Far beyond dressing, diaper changing, and feeding, the childcare you choose not only stands to significantly shape your child’s earliest learning experiences, but will also be important for her overall health and safety.
That said, many parents find themselves wondering how best to go about finding just the “right” childcare, and how to make this sometimes quite competitive process successful and a bit less daunting. To that end, as both a pediatrician and owner of a 200-student educational child care center, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with you a few insights about how I’d go about the process.
Playing by the rules. In the child care world, “rules” are set by each state and include everything from health department requirements for food handling, diaper changing and transporting children to how many children a teacher/provider can care for (you’ll likely hear this referred to as teacher-student ratios, or just “ratios”). Regardless of whether you opt for home- or center-based care, choosing providers that are licensed means that they’ve committed to playing by the important rules of childcare.
Start early. This is especially true if you’re looking for infant care, as space can be quite limited and waitlists can run quite long. This is typically because the number of teacher-to-student ratio is lower than for older children.
Trust more than your gut. Trusting your gut instincts will be important. Touring any setting you’re considering to make sure it offers a safe, clean environment and warm, friendly and caring providers is a good first step. Just don’t stop there – don’t be shy about asking to interview the director and/or providers, check references, go online and see what you can find, and be sure you (or the center) makes it a policy to conduct background checks.
Consistency, experience and degrees. Turnover is a common topic of discussion because finding and keeping high-quality caregivers admittedly can be a challenge. Yet we know that children do best with consistency – especially when it comes to their primary caregivers. Definitely look for a caregiver(s) with a proven track record who is dedicated to nurturing your child, and whenever possible, look for those with some sort of degree. While at least a bachelor’s degree in education, early childhood, or related area is ideal, it’s not always possible and you’ll likely pay more for it. Be aware that child care providers can also get an associates degree, or “CDA” (Child Development Associate) – a national credential that while not a full bachelor’s degree does require 120 hours of child care training.
Recognizing quality when you see it. While you should definitely have a good feeling about any childcare provider you consider, when it comes right down to it, there are proven criteria to look for that have been shown to be indicators of health and safety. They include:
- Appropriate supervision at all times and positive, consistent discipline.
- Low staff-to-child ratio and class sizes
- Frequent hand-washing and safe, hygienic diaper changing techniques
- Safety as a clear priority – including safe storage of any dangerous substances, a safe playground, well established policies for medication storage and administration, and emergency plans that include regular fire (and other) drills.
Healthy attitudes towards food. Nutrition is undeniably important in early childhood, yet all too often is neglected or disregarded entirely in the search for childcare. Be sure to ask not just about what food your child will be given, but also about how. Look, for example, to see that babies are held for feedings and bottles are held rather than propped, and where providers create a warm, family-style setting for toddlers and preschoolers that allows them to eat well-balanced meals while learning valuable self-feeding (not to mention social) skills.
Be picky about play. Play is said to be the work of young children, and for good reason. Play – not the technology-obsessed, sedentary kind, but the social, interactive, physically active kind – is crucial in helping children learn about the world (and friends) around them. Make sure your child will be given plenty of time to run around and play, that there are plenty of safe, creative, and age-appropriate toys available, and that time spent in front of a TV (or computer) screen will be kept to a bare minimum!
It’s about time. Clearly, your timing needs will necessarily factor in considerably into your plans. Remember to take into account not only your day-to-day needs, but also what sort of notice you’ll be given should your provider be unavailable, sick, or quit. In this regard, child care centers may not provide as much flexibility with regard to staying late, nights or weekends, but certainly can add an extra layer of “protection.”
While there are certainly many more considerations when choosing the right childcare, the most important thing to come away with is that making this decision and finding just the right setting is one of the most important decisions that you’ll make as a parent – both for your child’s health and safety as well as for laying the educational groundwork for your child’s lifelong learning.
Laura A. Jana, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician/parenting expert, national health communicator and proud mother of three. She is co-author of award-winning parenting books, Heading Home with Your Newborn (AAP 2nd Ed, 2010) and Food Fights (AAP, 2nd Ed 2012) as well as three children’s books, including one focused on early childhood development called Amazing Me, It’s Busy Being Three! (CDC 2012, Learn the Signs. Act Early Campaign). Having co-founded The Dr. Spock Company in the late 1990s, Dr Jana has since provided more than a decade’s worth of her reality-parenting advice to parents, academic institutions, nonprofits, major corporations, and media outlets nationwide, including The Today Show, CNN, Good Morning America, Parents magazine, Time, People, and USAToday. She currently serves on the advisory board for American Baby magazine and the Walt Disney Internet Group; blogs for the Omaha World Herald; is a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics; and is the owner of Primrose School of Legacy—a 200-student educational childcare center in Omaha, NE.