The optimal age to begin day care is just after the child's first birthday. "A child at this age is making leaps in her language, social, and motor skills. The constant flow of new people and stimulating activities in day care can fulfill a toddler's need to learn and explore," says Karen Miller, author of Simple Steps: Developmental Activities for Infants, Toddlers, and Two-Year-Olds (Gryphon House, 1999). Furthermore, by the age of 12 months, most children have passed through their first wave of separation anxiety, which usually peaks at about 9 months.
But even though early toddlerhood is a good time to make the switch to day care, parents may encounter a number of problems. Though toddlers are no longer babies, they still have babylike qualities: They need constant looking after, they have a limited attention span, and, most important, they continue to have problems with separation. Here's 6 tips for choosing the best day care for your child.
1. Put safety first. This is your most fundamental concern when evaluating potential centers. Make sure the facility is equipped to handle the safety needs of kids who may be toddling one day and scaling a bookcase the next.
"Perhaps the most important safety feature is constant adult supervision," says Diane Trister Dodge, founder and president of Teaching Strategies Inc., in Washington, D.C., a program devoted to enhancing the quality of early-childhood programs. "The ratio of toddlers to teachers should be no more than four-to-one. You'll also want to look for outlet covers, smoke detectors, locked cabinets, and age-appropriate toys. Any toy that has breakable parts or is smaller than the inside of a toilet-paper roll is a choking hazard for kids under 4." Safety standards apply to food too. It's important that growing toddlers eat healthy snacks throughout the day, so ask to see the center's meal schedule.
2. Do the white-glove test. In a day-care center, cleanliness is next to healthiness. "Before the age of 2, a child's immune system is especially vulnerable to viruses," says Richard Clifford, Ph.D., codirector for the National Center for Early Learning and Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To prevent germs from spreading, day-care staff must be scrupulous about washing their own and the children's hands and keeping the eating, sleeping, and diaper-changing areas immaculate.
3. Chat up the caregivers. "Day care for toddlers is not glorified baby-sitting," says Karen Miller. "To get the most out of the experience, a toddler needs a caregiver who engages him in play and challenges him to stretch his skills." Talk to the staff; find out about their background and credentials (ideally, they should have early-childhood-development training) and get them to share their ideas about child rearing.
"When you're visiting a facility, notice how the teachers engage the kids in play. If they're not exposing the kids to a rich variety of play experiences, choose another center," says Ravitha Amarasingham, a child-development educator at Wheelock College, in Boston. After you've enrolled your child, ask the teachers for regular updates on his progress, and drop in for visits whenever possible.
4. Smooth the path. Once you've found the perfect program for your toddler, you may think the hard part is over. Think again. "This is a tough transition for a toddler -- especially if it's his first time away from home," says Karen Miller. "Kids this age thrive on consistency; any major change in their routine is apt to cause an upset."
Toddlers also have a limited sense of object permanence; when you leave your child at day care, he might not fully grasp that you'll be back later to pick him up. How can you calm his fears? "Don't just drop your baby off cold turkey," says Dr. Clifford. "In the beginning, stay with him for as long as you can, even if it's all day for a week or so." This also gives you the chance to closely observe the day-care center's care and curriculum.
5. Stick with the routine. "Pickup and drop-off times should be predictable, and try to establish a good-bye ritual too," Amarasingham says. And be sure to give your child a rundown of her morning. "Say, 'I'll drop you off and say good-bye, and then you and your teacher will read a story,' " says Karen Miller. Arming your baby with a reminder of home -- his lovey, for example -- is also a comfort.
6. Face up to your own doubts. Finally, acknowledge that you have separation issues too. "It's hard to hand your baby over to someone else," Amarasingham says. "But focusing on the friends she'll make and the fun she'll have will make both of you feel better about the experience."