Quality Child Care: What Should You Look For?

I’ve been a full-time, stay-at-home mom (SAHM), a stay-at-home mom with a home business, and the parent with outside employment.  The most exhausting – and often the loneliest – was the first. Yet, I embraced it, read parenting books, scanned the latest research, and worked on a healthy relationship with my daughter.  For me, it was – still is – important to be as conscientious about parenting as any other career!

But, there came a time when family finances demanded I earn income in the labor force.  So before my employment, I sought out quality childcare for our precious daughter.  The better the childcare, the more I could relax, and the better off my child would be in many ways.

Childcare is becoming a critical issue for parents as 64 percent of mothers work outside the home while only two percent of employers offer on-site daycare centers.  A 2000 Census Bureau report shows more mothers are returning to the labor force within a year of giving birth.  As a result, over half the babies under a year of age are being cared for on a routine basis by someone other than Mom.

If you’re in the “market” for quality childcare, shop around as carefully as you would for any other major investment.  From safety and setting to staff and story time, know the key elements of quality care.  Be an educated consumer on behalf of your most valuable possession.  If you already have a childcare arrangement, match it against these criteria.  Look for a center or private home where:

•  It’s generally clean, well lit, and ventilated.  You could find the play area cluttered with toys but it should still look and smell clean.  A well-lighted play area promotes your youngster’s hand-eye skill.  Good ventilation prevents recycling the same old germs.

•  It is a safe environment. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in Washington, D.C. suggests that staff should be well versed in health and safety procedures, and be able to describe the policy for handling emergencies.  In a safe environment, children will be under adult supervision at all times.

•  Parents feel comfortable asking questions.  If you ask several questions and the caregivers seem offended or avoid your inquisition, leave!  When they are knowledgeable and proud of the facility they will be eager to offer information.

•  Parents are told to drop in anytime.  You want to make sure that caregivers welcome parents for lunch, special activities, or just to observe.

•  Parenting literature and child development resources are available.  You want your tot in an environment where parent education and professional growth are encouraged.  Great minds are always learning.

•  Toys and play equipment are child sized, age-appropriate, and regularly maintained and cleaned.

•  The program focuses equally on cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.According to the NAEYC website (www.naeyc.org), “High quality early childhood programs do much more than help children learn numbers, shapes, and colors.  Good programs help children learn how to learn: to question why and discover alternative answers; to get along with others; and to use their developinglanguage, thinking, and motor skills.”

•  Pictures and room decor are down on the child’s eye level.  Remember this is a place for children, not adults.

•  Adult turnover is low.  A steady stream of new caregivers is disturbing to young children.  It may signal to you that a relationship problem exists between staff and the director, a problem that trickles down to your child.

•  Children are touched appropriately, frequently, and in positive, affirming ways.  Children need to be touched, even if it’s a pat on the back, or holding hands during games.

•  Each child is addressed by name. There should be minimal use of group terms like “infants,” “babies,” or “kids.”

•  Caregivers receive training in early childhood education.  They should participate in continuing education every year, meet regularly to plan, and evaluate the program.

•  There’s low adult/child ratio. The NAEYC recommends at least one caregiver for every four infants (up to 12 months old) or a 1:4 ratio; 1:5 for toddlers (13 to 24 months); 1:6 for 2- and 3-year-olds; and about 1:9 for preschoolers.  Small groups of children with adults promote more positive interactions and individualized curriculum.

•  Childrearing and discipline philosophies are similar to your own.  You want leave your child in an environment consistent with your home discipline.  Ask “what if” questions to be sure.

•  Sign-in and -out policies are enforced.  Especially if you leave your little one in a large center with lots of foot traffic, security precautions are a must.

•  It’s either certified or licensed by your state.  Certification and/or licensure gives you a minimum health, safety, and nutritional standard – not a guarantee it’s the right place for your child.  I’ve known some licensed facilities where I wouldn’t leave my dog.  Neither does certification or licensure limit curriculum; church-run facilities can be licensed and still teach religious curriculum.

A word to the wise: Be wary of the caregiver with the “Honey, I’ve been tendin’ kids for 20 years an’ I know all there is to raisin’ babies!” attitude.  A caregiver worth his or her salt – and your money – needs to learn about your child and continually sharpen caregiving skills.

Finally, check with your local heath department and Better Business Bureau to see if the facility you’re considering has a record of complaints.  Remember knowledge is power.

Research shows that parents have an important influence on their child’s development, regardless of how much out-of-home care the child receives.  Whether you are at home or work outside the home, you are still your child’s most influential teacher.


As a speaker and writer, Brenda Nixon (www.brendanixon.com) is dedicated to building stronger families through parent empowerment. She is a mom and the author of, Parenting Power in the Early Years, on raising a child from birth to age five.

Guest Contributor