In light of these developments, how can parents find the best-quality childcare? Start with the basics: sensitive, trained caregivers who are committed to the center; a low child-to-teacher ratio; and a creative, fun (and clean!) play space. You can consider both daycare centers and family daycares. Keep in mind that not all daycares are licensed. If you are considering an unlicensed facility, make sure you understand why it falls outside the state-licensing requirements, and check that they nevertheless meet American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) standards for staff-to-child ratios, group size, and caregiver training.
Whatever type of facility you explore, see if it's accredited by an organization like the NAEYC, a mark of quality. In addition, the AAP, NAEYC, and other groups have Web sites with detailed checklists regarding classroom space, teacher qualifications, sanitary practices, safety, and equipment.
But what about the less-obvious daycare features that can make or break your child's experience? Below are some insider tips that moms and caregivers say are critical in helping you zero in on your final choice.
1. Get recommendations from people who hold similar values. You may trust your best friend inherently, but that doesn't mean you necessarily have the same philosophy about childcare. "Two close friends, whom I consider to be exemplary parents, recommended a center for my daughter," says Dorre Kleinman, of Northampton, Massachusetts. "But when I visited, it was much too free-form and crunchy-granola for my taste," she says. "In the end, I enrolled my daughter in a program recommended by a different friend who, like me, wanted a written rundown of what her kid did each day."
2. Look for signs of an organized, well-thought-out day. Because young children feel safe when their days are structured and predictable, it makes sense to look for a daycare with clear plans and programs. "At a well-run school, you will always see a posted lesson plan, so parents know what the children will be doing that day," says Lee-Allison Scott, vice president of marketing with Atlanta-based Primrose Schools, a preschool and childcare organization with 137 schools nationwide. The lessons needn't be elaborate -- just enjoyable and appropriate to a child's developmental stage. Other signs that a daycare is well run include bulletin boards with recently created artwork, a regular parent newsletter, and a parent committee.
3. Know your priorities. Since no daycare center is perfect, parents say it's a good idea to be realistic about what you can change, what you can live with, and what's simply intolerable; and know that these factors will be different for every family. Kleinman recalls finding a center that seemed perfect in every way, except for the snacks provided. "I knew that I could always bring in my own snack, so I didn't sweat it," she says. "But another seemingly perfect center had a serious deal breaker: a teacher I didn't like who didn't seem to connect with my child during the initial interview. I realized that that some things are negotiable; but other things, like the teachers, are not."
4. Look beyond credentials and jargon. Don't let a teacher or director's training or lingo snow you. A daycare director may have an impressive degree, but that doesn't mean every word she says is sacrosanct or that the center is the right one for your family. She should be able to answer your questions clearly, without using jargon as a smoke screen. "At one daycare, when I asked the teacher what a typical day would be like, she gave me a song and dance about structure and toddlers not mixing and how the word 'curriculum' should never be used when talking about early-childhood education," says Kleinman. "She obviously didn't know what she was going to do with the kids all day and thought she could dazzle me with jargon." As in many areas of life, common sense should be your guide. "At my daughter's center, the turnover was very high," recalls Susan Levin, of Scarsdale, New York. "The director told me that the children were fine and didn't have a problem with all the changes, but I could see that my daughter was unhappy. I realized that the director wasn't playing straight with me, so I took my daughter out of the center."