What to Look for in Daycare Options

What factors do we need to consider – what should we look for and what should we avoid – when selecting a daycare facility for our child? Some of our friends and family have had bad experiences in this area. Naturally, we'd like to avoid that if at all possible. Do you have any suggestions?

Here at Focus on the Family we’ve always maintained that the ideal situation for any young child is to be at home with his or her parent, preferably the mother. You will understand, then, if our first inclination is to advise you to forego daycare altogether if possible. We realize, of course, that if this were possible you probably wouldn’t be turning to us for advice in the first place; and since circumstances seem to have left you with no other option, we’ll be more than happy to come alongside you in your quest for viable solutions.

If the first, best choice for your child is you, it follows that your task is to look for someone as much like yourself as possible. You’re in the market to hire a substitute parent – someone who can fill your role in your child’s life during those hours of the day when you’re not available. And since you’re sending in a pinch-hitter, you need to make sure to pick the best batter on the bench.

As we see it, there are basically two routes you can take. First, there’s the professionally regulated, institutionalized, sometimes franchised daycare center. Second, there’s the sort of small in-house operation that’s often run by a grandmother or retiree who takes two or three children into her home on weekdays as a way of helping working moms and earning a few extra dollars. Both have their pros and cons. Both will make unique demands of you as a concerned and responsible parent. Whichever you choose, it’s important to remember that your involvement is vital to a positive outcome.

If you decide to go with a daycare center, you’ll want to make sure that the staff members are fully qualified and licensed. The facility should have written policies in place covering all of the potential problems and issues that might emerge during the course of a given day – illnesses and accidents, for example, the administration of medications, nutritional and dietary considerations, and questions about who is and who isn’t authorized to pick up your child at the end of the day or in case of a crisis. Site security and hygiene should also be taken into account. The facility must be in compliance with all state regulations and the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Transportation is another concern – find out whether the center has safe vehicles and licensed and insured drivers. Teachers and caregivers should be trained in CPR and have a written strategy (regularly rehearsed and practiced) for dealing with emergencies of all kinds (fire, earthquake, tornado, etc.) If this information isn’t posted openly in the facility’s front office, don’t be afraid to request documentation. Ask lots of questions. Find out about the ratio of adults to children – generally speaking, the lower the ratio, the better (i.e. one-to-five for children under five, one-to-fifteen for older kids). Become a careful and thorough investigator. Find out if any complaints or grievances have been filed against the facility with the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s up to you to become an advocate on your child’s behalf.

This might entail setting up a personal meeting with the staff as part of the decision-making process. Request details concerning the certification of each and every member of the team. Try to get a sense of their attitude towards their responsibilities and their feelings about the children they serve. Ask questions like, “Why are you here? What do you enjoy about this kind of work? How did you get into it?” What you’re looking for are workers who genuinely love kids and who seem enthusiastic about helping them learn and grow and thrive. If you see signs of boredom, burnout, or a cynical attitude, they should be regarded as red flags.

You may also want to give some thought to the kinds of activities you’d like your child to become involved with at the daycare center. How do you want him or her to spend those hours of the day? Different facilities have different emphases in this regard. Are you looking to provide your child with an educational experience – reading, writing, and working with numbers? Or would you prefer an environment that places greater stress on crafts, playtime, or physical activity? This is another area in which you’ll want to do your homework before making a decision.

The advantage of a home-based, neighborhood daycare lies primarily in the homelike atmosphere it provides, the lower adult-to-child ratio it affords, and the potential for a close, personal relationship between parent and caregiver. If you choose to explore this option, try to find a caregiver whom you already know personally. If this isn’t possible, we’d advise you to rely on word-of-mouth reports rather than formal advertising in making your selection.

Since OSHA, state licensing, and industry standards probably won’t come into play in a situation of this nature, you will have to shoulder an even greater burden of the responsibility for investigating the details. Become a detective. Find out who else lives in the home and who will be in and out during the course of the day. Request background checks on the caregiver and any other resident over the age of eighteen. Ask to be taken on a walk-through tour. Pay attention to the size of the rooms and the amount of space available – state standards usually recommend a minimum of thirty-five square feet per child. Check out the bathrooms – do they appear to be clean and sanitary? What about the toys in the playroom and other surfaces throughout the house? If you’re afraid of appearing nosey or obsessive, put such concerns out of your mind. It’s extremely important to know exactly what you’re getting into in a private home scenario.

Once your choice is made and your child has been placed in the daycare center, make it your practice to drop in unexpectedly from time to time. That’s the best way to hold everyone accountable and get an accurate picture of what actually goes on in the facility when you’re not around.

Below is a list of resources you may find helpful. If you think it might be worthwhile to discuss your questions at greater length, give us a call. Our counselors are all trained and licensed in the field of clinical psychology and would be happy to help in any way they can.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Moms on the Job: Seven Secrets for Success at Home and Work


Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS)

Working Moms

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