1 - Look early. Starting looking while you are expecting - don't wait until the baby is born. Start planning preschool care the season before you want to start. Toddler classrooms fill up the fastest, so if you plan on spending the first year at home or with family care, start looking at childcare centers by the time baby is 6-8 months old.
2 - Call a variety of centers, get information sent in the mail and set up a time to visit. Try and visit centers between 8 and 11. This is when the bulk of learning and adult/child interaction happens.
3 - Take your time and pay attention to the classroom when visiting.
A tour will generally be given by a director or assistant director. She will share a variety of regulations (teacher-child ratios, diaper procedures, staff qualifications). These regulations are state enforced and are going to be the same no matter what daycare you choose. Take your time looking around the center. Most childcare directors are so used to the classrooms that they tend to run through the room. Your child will be here a good portion of their day, so try and relax and get a feel for the center.
4 - See more than one classroom. Your child will move through the classrooms quicker than you realize. Your infant will soon be a toddler, your toddler soon potty training and then off to preschool. It happens fast and your goal is to find a center your child can stay at until elementary school. As you look around the various classrooms, ask yourself some of these questions:
Are the children being ignored or engaged in activities?
Are teachers spaced about the room, or are they clumped together, not with the kids?
What, if any, discipline is taking place? *
*When thinking about discipline, keep in mind that childcare is different than what you remember about school, or what you have seen in family settings and/or with your friends children. There should be an appropriate level of organized chaos.
5 - Ask specific questions to the director and classroom teacher. A good teacher will focus on you for a only a few moments, because their primary focus has to stay on the students, but often they can give you a moment of their time. If you only get a chance to ask one question, Ask how long have they been in childcare. (Keep in mind that childcare has a very high turnover rate, and a teacher that has been with a center for 2 or 3 years is a huge asset.) A director should be with a center longer and should have more credentials. It is good to know if she has a background in education, human services, psychology or other related field.
6 - Have the security features explained to you. While it is always impossible to make anything 100% secure, how well a director can answer about security, gives you an idea how much they have paid attention to it. Think about how individuals get into the facility. Is there a code entrance? Are the buzzed by individuals Child release procedures are state mandated, but it is always good to hear a director explain them. The clearer they explain them to you, you know they have explained the procedures well to their staff.
7 - Regular Reports. Will you get a written report of your child's day? It will be a long time before he is able to tell you anything worthwhile or relevant, so it is a good idea to have a daily infant report that says food amounts and times given. Length naps and where taken (crib, swing, held, stroller, etc). A few minute verbal catch up a the end of the day is not enough when you get home and baby starts crying - it's good to know exactly how much he ate/slept so you can better ascertain his need.
8 - What items are provided? Ask what items you have to provide, and what does the center supply. Keep in mind the more you provide, the more you know what your child ate and out of what, that items have been cleaned to your satisfaction, that the diapers have been changed enough, etc. Check that the providers standards match what you are hoping to uphold at home.
8 - Read the policies, agreements and additional forms carefully. In addition to checking how tuition is charged (daily/weekly/quarterly), also look for any extra fees (enrollment/scheduling/insurance). Ask what is involved with changing the schedule at the last minute, are you charged additionally outside of that time? Are meals included in tuition? How does tuition work for vacation days, holidays, etc? Does the center close for certain holidays, is tuition required over those closings? Tuition is important, but remember to weigh the balance between quality care and cost of care.
9 - Ask for references. Childcare centers recognize that people find choose them for three main reasons: location, price and word-of-mouth. Ask for that word-of-mouth. Not all centers are able to, but some will have a list of past or present families that are willing to share their thoughts of the childcare center. If a center has this list, utilize it! You are more likely to get a feel for the ins and outs of a particular center from another parent than you are from an outsider looking in.
10 - Try and visit multiple places and visit the center you like more than once. It is unlikely that you married the first person you went on a date with, or bought the first house your realtor showed you. Choosing a childcare center is just as important of a decision. Pick a different day and time to visit, even if it is a short stop in to ask some additional questions you thought of after the first trip. Understand that if you show up unexpected, without a child enrolled, you should be escorted through the building. Recognize that without an appointment, this can be very difficult to accommodate.
The Final, most important tip: Do not feel guilty about putting your child in daycare! There are so many benefits for children and parents today. Regardless of how much time he or she spends in care, you will always be number 1 in their eyes.
Often, a simple call ahead will keep your visit smooth.