Choosing a Child-Care Center

Wondering how to find a quality caregiver? Our guide will point you toward the right place.

We found our first child-care center through a friend. In hindsight, we wanted so badly for it to work that we overlooked a few red flags. The end came when the provider called me complaining that my son's crying was "disruptive and upsetting." The second time around, we were more thorough in our search, and it paid off. My son Roy has been going to Mrs. Lopez's in-home child care for more than a year, and he loves it.

Securing a positive child-care arrangement can be a challenge, but it's worth the effort. Experts say that kids who are in an early-childhood setting that promotes emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being develop better academic and social skills than those in lower-quality care do. While day-care babies tend to have more respiratory and ear infections early on, they develop a stronger immune system that keeps them healthier once school starts, according to a study published in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. To find top-notch care, start looking early. Read on for points you need to consider.

Center vs. Home

Well-run child-care centers usually have separate baby, toddler, and preschool rooms. Many centers offer extended hours to accommodate early drop-offs and late pickups. Plus, if a caregiver gets sick or takes a vacation, there's ample staff to fill in.

Full-time infant care in someone's house runs up to $6,000 less per year than at a center, according to a 2011 report by Child Care Aware of America. Some parents also prefer the more intimate environment -- family day-care homes typically have no more than six kids -- and are comfortable with having babies and 4-year-olds spend their days together.

Background Check

Make sure that potential providers are licensed by the state. Next, inquire about the adult-to-child ratio. Many states require centers to have one caregiver for every three or four infants. The person in charge of your child should have a minimum of 40 hours of training. Also inquire about a prospective center's staff turnover rate (the national average is 40 percent annually) and how it handles the transition to new staff.

Conducting Interviews

Once you've done your research, visit the two or three places you like best. Come with questions: How do babies spend their day? Is there daily reading time? Does the center supply formula and food? "Make sure you can drop in any time," says Peter Pizzolongo, senior director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

While the responses of the director and baby-room provider may be telling, so are your observations. Check out every area where your child would spend time, including the nap room, the changing table, and any play zones. Pay special attention to cleanliness and any possible safety concerns. Look for a well-stocked book area and a variety of age-appropriate playthings.

Watch how the caregivers interact with the kids too. There should be no yelling and minimal crying, and adults should get down to a child's eye level to talk. Try to observe one baby to get a sense of what his experience is like. Request references from other families whose kids are or have been in the program. Above all, trust your instincts, Pizzolongo says. My husband and I approached our interview with Mrs. Lopez somewhat skeptically given our previous experience. But we left the meeting aglow, giddy with the feeling that we had finally found "the one."

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