Searching for group childcare – especially infant care – can be daunting. I had sort of forgotten how hard the vetting process can be, but my third baby unfortunately couldn’t attend the same daycare that my big kids attended as infants. So I was back to Square 1. During my pregnancy last year I spent what felt like an absurd amount of time researching and touring daycares, and asking tons and tons of questions. And from that experience, here’s my practical list of factors to consider when looking for infant care.
- Are the kids happy? First and foremost for me, when I walk in the door, I want it to look like the kids are having a good time. I want the toddlers to be running around and laughing and maybe doing a messy art project, and I want the babies to be hanging out with chew toys or sensory objects and cooing and smiling. Generally speaking, I want a good, fun vibe.
- What’s the staff turnover? I’ve learned to ask how long the longest-tenured staff member has been at the daycare. If you have a rotating door of caregivers, it can be disruptive for the children, and a sign that not all is well with the center owner or director.
- Does the staff appear engaged? Teachers should be on the ground playing, or reading, or helping with things like diapers or feeding. Teachers should not be locked into their iPhones surfing Facebook.
- What’s the ratio? The staff needs to be able to give appropriate attention to all the kids, so you’ll want to know child-to-teacher ratio. Note that this is usually state-mandated and can vary a bit by where you live. In California, for example, for center-based care, the ratio is no more than three children to one teacher for infants under 18 months.
- What’s the sleeping situation? Ideally, the center should have a separate sleeping area with an individual crib (or cot or mat for older children), and a staff member present in the room at all times while babies or kids are sleeping. I like daycares where I can bring my own crib sheets and change the bedding once or twice a week.
- What’s the sick child policy? The truth of the matter is that kids in group care are going to get sick. It’s inevitable. So it’s important to know when you need to keep your child home. Does a low-grade fever get them booted, or are they OK to stay if it’s under 101 and they have no other symptoms? Does one blow-out diaper get them evicted? How about a clear runny nose? Feel free to drill down on this, because it’s going to affect you at some point in the near future.
- How much does the staff use swings/bouncy seats/etc. for infants? The best answer here is “not at all”. While I have absolutely nothing against these items, and I use them in my own home, their use is a little different in a daycare setting. It’s very easy to park a baby in a swing and leave them there for an extended period of time while a caregiver deals with other children. Most top-flight early education centers have zero bouncy seats, swings, exersaucers, etc.
- Are all babies fed in-arms? Propped bottles aren’t a good idea. They’re not safe, and it’s much better for babies developmentally to be fed in a caregiver’s arms. Your little one should feel nice and cozy and safe when she’s eating! I’m cool with feeding babies at little tables or in high chairs once they can sit up and are on solids, but bottles should be given in-arms.
- Is the infant environment shoeless? Ideally for environments with non-walking babies, the school (or infant classroom) should have a shoe-free policy. Everyone should change into slippers at the door, or cover their shoes with booties.
- How often are facilities cleaned? Is there a “germ bin” for dirty toys? Infants and toddlers are basically germ factories. To minimize the spread of illness, the daycare should wash all toys/tables/carpets/etc. on a regular basis. Toys that have gone into a kid’s mouth should immediately be put into a “germ bin” out of reach when the child is done playing, so no other child can come along behind the first baby and put the drool-covered chew toy into his mouth.
- How often is television on? Again, I’d argue that the best answer is “never” or perhaps “only on very special occasions”. My baby’s daycare does “movie day” once or twice a year, where they watch a Disney film, and this is a very big deal; the older kids look forward to it for weeks. Also, if there have been several rainy days in a row and everyone is cranky and has cabin fever, occasionally the director will allow a movie. That’s it. I understand this one can be a hot button issue, but I’d encourage you to be wary of childcare providers who are heavily reliant on television.
- Is there an open door policy? As the parent, you should have the right to show up at any time, unannounced. No open door policy is a huge red flag and would be enough to make me cross that center right off my list. I’m not against policies like “please try to avoid arriving from 9:30-10:00 a.m., as that’s when we have circle time with the preschoolers” or “5:00 p.m. tends to be very busy with pickups, so if you need to speak to a teacher about an issue try to come at a different time or set up an appointment.” That kind of restriction makes sense. But I want to be able to show up whenever I want and see what’s going on.
- Are there physical security measures in place? Toddlers are master escape artists. The daycare should have appropriate child-safe locks on all exits/entrances. Bonus points if the center has a security gate with a keypad for entry or similar.
- What’s the communication policy? For infants and toddlers, you should be getting written information about your child’s day, every single day. This can be a basic sheet listing out diaper changes, feedings, and naps, or electronic communication like SitterNote. It can also be vastly reassuring to receive pictures; ask if the teachers ever send any.
- Does the daycare carry insurance? More about why that’s important here.
- What’s your gut feeling? A daycare can check every single box on this list, and just not feel right to you. You’re the parent, and I’d encourage you to listen to your instincts.
That’s a lot to think about! I hope this list is helpful, and I send you sincere good wishes in your childcare search. I hope you find a place where the teachers will become valued friends and helpers, and where your child will grow and thrive and learn all kinds of interesting, messy, fascinating things.