With stories of child care tragedies going viral, it's easy for parents to worry at daycare drop-off. Experts offer ways to work through the fears and find a daycare center that's right for you.

By Tracey Harrington McCoy
Yeji Kim

There are more than 12 million American kids under the age of five in daycare, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And many of the working parents of these children swallow a big spoonful of guilt every weekday. When they drop their kid off each morning, they feel that small tug: is this place really a safe environment for my child? But they push down the fear, kiss their kid goodbye, and head off to work.

Every parent wants to guarantee they found the perfect daycare for their child, but no one is able to truly determine if it’s the best fit for their baby without spending a serious amount of time there. Then they head to work and hear a daycare horror story on the news of a 2-year-old who was allegedly beaten to death at an unlicensed daycare or a daycare reportedly using a weighted vest to punish a 1-year-old. That's horrifying to read, but these events are rare, which is why they make headlines.

Research has shown there are not a lot of injuries and fatalities at daycare and kids are actually, for the most part, safe. So why are moms and dads still unnecessarily beating themselves up for sending their kids to daycare when it’s often a great child care option? It turns out that for many parents, the guilt isn’t about choosing daycare at all. The top reason parents feel guilty each week is because they think they are not spending enough time at home playing with their kids, according to research by Farm Rich.

Some parents have the option to stay home with their kids, but working parents who need to outsource child care should also feel confident in a big parenting decision they just made about who is caring for their child. Experts suggest ways parents can feel at ease with their choice.

How to Make Sure a Daycare Center is Safe

"The reality is that many families who want to find the safest and most nurturing care for their child, don't know where to go to find all of the information necessary to make an informed decision about child care," says Lynette M. Fraga, Ph.D., executive director of Child Care Aware of America.

The problem? "States have different requirements, and parents and families have to do a lot of legwork to understand licensing requirements for their state, and what quality child care looks like." says Dr. Fraga.

When it comes time to make the decision, quality is essential. A nurturing setting with well-educated caregivers that are compensated and supported properly can make a huge difference. “There is real magic when families find that ‘just right’ setting,” says Dr. Fraga. “Unfortunately, quality is too often hard to find and out of reach financially for many families.” Good news is there are resources parents can use to find child care that fits their needs. “Families can check with their local Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies to help locate a program that will be a good fit for their family,” adds Dr. Fraga. Through there families can also learn about options that may help pay for their child care.

It also doesn’t hurt to get some suggestions from other parents you trust. “Connecting with the right daycare center for your child is important,” says Maureen Healy, Ph.D., a children’s emotional health expert and author of The Emotionally Healthy Child. “It requires asking good questions and getting recommendations from other caring adults.”

And once you’ve narrowed down the list of potential daycares, plan on doing the following:

  • Call and schedule a tour (whether it’s a center or family child care home). Plan on staying for at least one hour so that you can see the different activities taking place.
  • Ask to spend time in the room where your child might be so that you can see how the providers work with the children.
  • Ask to meet all the caregivers who might be working with your child, and learn more about them, such as if they have a degree in a child-related field and if they have worked in child care for at least a year.
  • Ask staff and the owner/director about the program.
  • Chat with current parents at the daycare.

As for credentials, the educational and training requirements also differ from state to state. “Generally, certain health and safety topics, such as CPR, First Aid, and safe sleep may be required,” says Dr. Fraga. “Families should also check out a child care program’s licensing report and health and safety inspections.” (You can see this information at Child Care Aware of America’s State By State Resource Map.)

How to Stay Calm After Daycare Drop-off

It can be hard to feel secure when hearing viral stories about deaths at daycares, although they aren’t very common. There is no national requirement for reporting fatalities at daycares. But data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, a federally sponsored effort that collects and analyzes annual data on child abuse and neglect in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, can help put the danger of daycare providers into perspective. In 2016, there were about 1,750 children who died of neglect and abuse. Of those, 24 were from a child daycare provider. The majority of deaths reported occurred at the hands of parents.

Despite this, hearing about a daycare tragedy on the news can still make any parent worry. And sometimes, even after we’ve chosen carefully vetted caregivers, it doesn't take much to rev up the imagination. "We know that some parents will project their own problems and fears onto a daycare situation—and possibly distort reality in the process, sometimes seeing things that are not really there," says Paul Holinger, M.D., a psychiatrist based in Chicago, Illinois, and author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

Staying calm and rational during these times is crucial. “It is important to take a moment and manage the fear and anxiety themselves prior to reaching out to the daycare,” says Christine Fonseca, educational psychologist and author based in California. “Parents can learn to ask themselves, ‘Do I have a reason to be concerned right now, or am I simply afraid of something that might happen?’ It is important for parents to differentiate random fear from legitimate concerns.”

Another reason to stay calm is so that your kiddos stay calm. “Children including babies are quite good at ‘reading’ a parent’s anxiety or worry,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered. “If you can, project an aura of calm and confidence when you leave your child.”

Finding ways to ease your mind after drop-off is a great idea. “I am a big believer in ‘popping in’ to check on your son or daughter to ensure everything is under control and going as planned,” says Dr. Healy. “Of course, centers cannot handle lots of parents and caregivers unexpectedly showing up, but if you feel nervous, this is your right as a parent to check on your child.”

Many chain daycare providers now offer cameras that live stream from the facility. Take advantage of this to keep an eye on your child’s environment—and if you see something that makes you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to speak up. Also, don’t be hesitant to ask for photos or email updates during the day.

Bottom line, there's an incredible amount of trust placed in the people watching your kids. And though the one-off stories told during mom wine nights might sound scary, research and data show the anxiety over dropping of your little one may not be necessary.

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