Follow these expert-approved tips for choosing the ideal daycare center, then learn how to ease the transition for your little one.

By Nitza Wilson and Renee Sagiv Riebling
Updated June 08, 2021
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The optimal age to begin daycare is just after a child's first birthday. "A kid at this age is making leaps in her language, social, and motor skills. The constant flow of new people and stimulating activities in daycare 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).

But although early toddlerhood is ideal for making the switch to daycare, parents may encounter a number of problems. That's because toddlers still have baby-like qualities; they need constant supervision, they have a limited attention span, and they often suffer from separation anxiety.

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Are you preparing to start child care? Check out these tips for finding the perfect place, then read up on how to get your little one ready for the transition.

Choosing a Child Care Facility

Whether your child will be at a center or in a private home, check that the facility is licensed by the state and hasn't been cited for any violations. You can search for a high-quality early-childhood program accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) at naeyc.org.

Next, find out if the child care location you're considering allows visits during operating hours. This will let you see how they function. Look for the following factors to choose the best daycare option for your family.

Safety Features

Safety is your most fundamental concern when evaluating potential daycare centers. Check for covered electrical outlets, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and the presence of a first-aid kit. You'll also want to look for 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," 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.

Healthy Foods

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.

Teacher-to-Child Ratio

The NAEYC recommends a maximum of 12 toddlers in a group, with at least one adult for every six kids. Ask the director if the children are supervised even when they're sleeping. "Perhaps the most important safety feature is constant adult supervision," says Dodge.

Cleanliness of the Facilities

In a daycare center, cleanliness also vital. "Before the age of 2, a child's immune system is especially vulnerable to viruses," says Richard Clifford, Ph.D., co-director for the National Center for Early Learning and Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To prevent germs from spreading, daycare staff must be scrupulous about washing their own and the children's hands and keeping the eating, sleeping, and diaper-changing areas immaculate.

Qualified Staff Members

"Day care for toddlers is not glorified baby-sitting," says 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." Seek out a program staffed by teachers who have either a child development degree or a child development associate credential.

Age-Appropriate Curriculum

Ask the director whether there is a gradually increasing focus on skill and language development as the kids approach age 2. They should keep a log of diaper changes and nap times, as well as your child's mood and activities. The curriculum should offer regular opportunities to learn through hands-on materials, exploration, and play. Toddlers pick up math concepts by building with blocks and counting toys, and they gain early literacy skills through stories, songs, and finger play. Caregivers should also consciously encourage kids to put on their coat by themselves and feed themselves.

"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.

Preparing Your Child for Daycare

Once you've found the perfect child care program for your toddler, you may think the hard part is over. Guess again. "This is a tough transition for a toddler-especially if it's his first time away from home," says Miller. "Kids this age thrive on consistency; any major change in their routine is apt to cause an upset." Some tears are natural (on both sides), but there are some clear-cut steps you can take to help them feel at ease.

Let Them Know What to Expect

Before their first day, try reading picture books about going to child care or school such as Bye-Bye Time by Elizabeth Verdick, and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, and talk to your child about what to expect.

Ease Into Daycare

Toddlers have a limited sense of object permanence; when you leave your child at daycare, they might not fully grasp that you'll be back later to pick them up. So how can you ease their 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." Let them acclimate to the new environment gradually by sending them part-time for the first week, if possible.

Stick to a 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 their morning. "Say, 'I'll drop you off and say good-bye, and then you and your teacher will read a story,'" says Miller.

Provide Some Comfort

Give your tot a picture of you or a lovey to soothe them during the day. Above all, show your child that you like their caregivers, and let them know that they'll have fun at the center.

Face Your Own Doubts

Finally, acknowledge that you might 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."