Once you've survived the initial traumas of finding potential day-care centers, the next step is to narrow the list by visiting and evaluating each of the front-runners.
Child-care resource expert Kim Smith recommends that, for starters, parents look beyond the municipal license that may or may not be hanging on the wall: "Licensing and regulation is not synonymous with quality child care -- understanding that will alleviate a lot of the anxiety out there."
According to Smith, 90 percent of the family day-care homes in this country "operate underground or are unlicensed." By the letter of the law, that means illegal. But today's urgent need for day-care facilities outreaches the practicality of the law. Smith cites statistics from The Children's Foundation, a Washington-based child advocacy organization, indicating that of the 6.2 million U.S. children in child care, only 900,000 are in licensed facilities.
While horror stories -- of "warehousing" children, infants screaming in corners or kids crammed in rooms lit only by the glow of the television screen -- do exist, says Smith, licensing is no guarantee of good care any more than no license equates poor care. Regulations vary widely from one state to another (in this area, Maryland is most stringent, Virginia the least, the District in between), adds Smith. And many child-care facilities choose to go underground simply to avoid bureaucratic hassle.
"Licensing is a good thing to ask about," says Smith, "because if a facility is licensed, it means that it will meet certain physical requirements." But, Smith adds, there are some more important standards that child-care facilities outside of the home should satisfy:
Check out every room in the facility. If you are told that you can't go in a particular room, be hesitant to use that provider. Your child, without a doubt, will eventually get into every room.
A spotless place doesn't necessarily mean it is a great place. It might only mean this care giver is hung up on cleanliness.
Check staff qualifications: Any early childhood development background? Are they respectful? Do they provide individual attention to the children? Talk to other parents using the center. Ask the director if the center does background checks on its employes.
Does the staff's concept of discipline jell with your's.
Bring the child with you. See how the child and the care giver get along. Trust your initial instincts.
Do the other children there seem happy and busy or are they off in corners crying?
Does the facility have a schedule: milk and cookies in the morning, then a half hour of outdoor play, then indoor games, etc.? The day needs to be structured.
When the children are taken out -- to the library, the zoo, the playground -- make certain your permission is always required, and that an adult will always be present.
Require that you may drop in at any time during the day -- and not only during visiting hours. Although it can be disruptive, it is essential. Don't place your child in a home that doesn't allow drop-ins.
Make sure that at the end of each day the provider is willing to discuss with you how the child did that day. Did he eat? How did she get that bump on her knee? Is he joining in with the other kids?
If your child is hanging on your legs as you leave the center -- especially if this goes on for more than a week -- find out why. "The kid might pitch a fit and 5 minutes after you leave, he'll be fine," says Smith. "But if it doesn't stop, reconsider the child-care scenario. Bring it to the attention of the child-care giver that your child seems unhappy.