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How to pick a great daycare

Categories: Kid Matters, Work & Career


By Samantha Campen of Back To Me

I have been a full-time working mom for exactly two years. Finding someone to watch a piece of my heart was one of the hardest decisions my husband and I had to make, and not just because we were in a newborn sleep deprived stupor. Finding the utmost trust in another person to care for our child was a lesson in priorities, flexibility, and good old faith. We knew we wanted an in-home daycare, had a rough idea as to our budget, and had a travel radius based on where my office was located. I reached out to all my working mom friends who were a huge help but I still felt unprepared. Once we found our day home we were in love and were with her for two years until she decided to retire. ALERT! ALERT! ALL SYSTEMS DOWN! The fact that we were going to have to find someone ELSE to watch our now-toddler was a stress I didn’t expect to see again so soon. Here are a few things I’ve learned while lurching down the painful road to finding a great daycare provider.

1. Word of mouth is priceless.

Start blabbing to anyone you know that you’re looking for daycare. It doesn’t matter if you want a private nanny, a dayhome, or a public center, people know people and if someone loves their situation they are going to want to talk about it. Don’t know where to start? Try your pediatrician’s office. Nurses and doctor’s work so maybe they have a great one that has a current opening. Or they could know a patient’s mother who runs a daycare. You never know. If you attend church ask around there–maybe even the church itself as a center. I trust word of mouth above a Craig’s List ad or a blurb in the paper any day especially if I know the person directly.

2. Have a list of questions already written down so you don’t forget.

This might sound obvious or trivial but it’s easy to forget what you wanted to ask. I also came up with a system where questions in red were non-negotiable, and questions in black offered some wiggle room. This made it easier for my eye while I was on the phone scrolling my note pad and also, oddly enough, helped my confidence while asking necessary questions that were important without sounding passive. Is it okay for the provider to have pets? What foods are served? How are nap times handled? Are the kids put in time outs or does she go all Cesar Millan on them? See? Things to know.

3. Watch the other kids when you stop in for a visit (assuming your day care situation is off-site).

Of course getting a feel for the environment is important, as well as looking the provider in the eye and seeing how she is with the children. But watch them. Are they all happy? Do they seem stressed or sullen? Do any of the ones wearing diapers smell and are in desperate need of new Pampers? This is huge for me. At our first dayhome one of the children came up to Miss D while we were talking, hugged her legs and said “You my best fwend” before toddling off again. You can’t pay a two year old to do that so I knew it was genuine, which sealed the deal. Miss D also had a black lab who was calm around the kids. I interpreted that to mean that if the dog was calm, the atmosphere must be under control. Dogs can sense impending doom right?

4. Take cues from your child: Don’t bring them with you the first time you go to scope out the place.

It will be too hard to chat, ask questions, and take in the surroundings. If the location seems like it might be in the top three, then come back with your child and see how he responds. If you have a toddler: does he rush in to play with the toys? Is he receptive to the potential daycare lady? When you leave does he talk about the place again for better or worse? If you have a small infant: are things too overstimulating for him which make him tense and cry? Was the napping area quiet and clean? Were there age appropriate toys that your child liked to play with (or put in his mouth, let’s be honest)? If she held him, what was his body language? All of these things can also speak volumes which you’ll feel in your gut.

5. Trust yourself.

Know that you are making the best decision possible for your family. You won’t know how it’s going to be until you give it a try. Allow two weeks and then reassess how things are working out for everyone. Your kid isn’t going to be a perfect angel every single day, so ask yourself “Is he just being his age and going through a milestone, or is he acting out because he’s unhappy?” We have a two year old (oh the range of emotions!) so it’s usually just him being in the prime of toddlerhood. If you get a bad feeling then go with it. You’ll never regret being too careful.

It’s painfully obvious that no one can care for your child as well as you can. Finding a person to love on them as much as you would is a tall order, but it can be done. And if you’re like me, then maybe your son will WHINE for Miss D or Miss C at the end of a long weekend and ask “When you going back to work, Mama?” Which, honestly? Makes my heart swell twice its size because that means we did something right. The decision we made was the best one which is all we ever wanted.

Do you have any tips about choosing a day care provider that you want to share?

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5 comments so far...

  • All of your tips are great. The one other thing that worked for me was repeating the mantra “Nothing is permanent.” I felt much calmer about the whole thing when I reminded myself that if something felt “not right” or otherwise just wasn’t working out, we could always change our minds and find someplace new.

    Leah K  |  July 7th, 2010 at 2:19 pm

  • Leah that’s exactly right. I had the two week rule and like you, felt so much better as well!

    samantha jo campen  |  July 7th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

  • Because I’ve always ALWAYS grown up with teachers (my roommate for four years is one of the BEST educators I’ve ever known, second only to her mom, who was my teacher growing up), I always ask the director/owner how they deal with other parenting styles. We’ve never looked into a “dayhome”, per se, because the licensing to start one of those in AL is INSANE so no one does it, but I would LOVE to.

    As it is, we tried out the daycare closest to our home. It looks run down, it is an OLD building, and the classrooms are very small. Just looking at it, I would’ve turned it down. But we visited and found that it was run by mostly retired teachers.. grandmothers, mostly.. and we have been THRILLED with it since.

    I hijacked your comments. And I apologize. :)

    Sarah Lena  |  July 8th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

  • I’m not sure if every community has something like this but for me this free service was really helpful:

    Connections for Children:

    This is for the west side of LA. For my city, Santa Monica, I just called them and they sent me an email list of all the daycares that fit my criteria. I ended up with a place I really love.

    Finding childcare for your baby is so difficult and such a process. We had a nanny at first and it didn’t work out too well so Connections for Children was really helpful.

    The Mama  |  July 8th, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  • I agree that word-of-mouth is a great way to find childcare. Whether you are thinking about a daycare center or nanny, nothing beats a referral from someone you know. Pediatricians and churches are good places to start, but don’t stop there. Tell everyone you know you are looking for childcare: friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. Also send a quick email or message to your friends on Facebook or Twitter - that will bring lots of suggestions and recommendations you can trust.

    @NannyExpert  |  July 9th, 2010 at 1:51 pm