We live in a time in which many families have both parents or a single parent working, whether by choice or because finances require them to. Plenty of stay-at-home moms send their kids to something like a Mother’s Day Out or part-time daycare during the week as well. It doesn’t matter if you choose the childcare life or the childcare life chooses you, it all comes down to one thing: it is very, very difficult to send your baby or child to be cared for by someone that’s not you. Because honestly, who can we trust more than ourselves? This is our baby and we know them best, and we want the best for them.
In the event that you need childcare, below I’m sharing some tips on how to choose the best fit for your family. I am someone who has childcare center teaching experience and I went back to work when my baby was four-months-old. My experience is with a center rather than a sitter or home daycare, but many of these points will apply to both!
If humanly possible, reserve your spot before you are pregnant
Um…what?! I know, this one sounds crazy. But honestly, it is the norm now for people to get on a center’s waiting list before they are even pregnant. We started looking when I was nine months out from needing childcare; I was almost halfway through my pregnancy but luckily able to take four months of maternity leave. At one of our top choices, we were #90 on the waiting list for the infant room. 90! We happened to get very lucky at our current place, and my son has been there ever since.
When I started the great childcare search, I googled all centers on a map within the entire city of Knoxville, and even included some of the surrounding areas. Based on their websites, Facebook pages, and internet reviews, I managed to whittle the list down to ten or so contenders that weren’t too out of the way from our route to work, and began to call. You can find out a lot about a place by the initial phone call. Do they sound professional? What do you hear in the background? How much information are they willing to give a perfect stranger who calls a childcare center? The call is also helpful because it narrows down your list based on one of the most important factors for most people: cost.
We toured five different centers, ranging from church-based to nature-based, and at varying costs. In the end, we chose one that was toward the top of our budget, but also provided more. At several of the less expensive daycares, parents were required to bring diapers, wipes, all snacks and lunches, and several other items. The center we chose provides all those things, so the cost almost evens out in the end. Not to mention the lunches my toddler eats are way healthier than my own work lunches. I should probably work on that…
When touring a childcare center, ask how long the directors and teachers have been there. If the classrooms go through several lead teachers a year, there’s a problem. At our center, the directors and many of the teachers have been there 20 years or more! You know they genuinely love their jobs if they can handle that many years of wrangling and educating kids in the 0-5 age range. The exception here would be college age assistant teachers; they will have been there for a shorter time because they are often working while obtaining an early childhood education degree or just love kids and are working their way through school. But just because they are there a shorter time, doesn’t mean they love your kids any less! And they may even end up sticking around after college. If a childcare center truly values their teachers, as well as the education and training they possess, you will notice teacher longevity.
In addition to ensuring a center has a 3-star rating (the Tennessee childcare provider rating system), look for safety and security measures. Is it more important to you that your provider has an open door or a keypad on the door? It was important to me that they kept a locked front entrance at all times, but had an “open-door” policy for parents. Is the playground fenced in? What is crime like in the area? How close to major interstates is the center? Maybe these were a little overboard, but I don’t think I could sleep at night if I felt like my kid wasn’t safe during the day. His safety was my number one priority, and another reason why I was willing to pay a little more than my normally cheap self wanted to for his care.
I also asked lots of questions about security plans, food handling, sleep safety, and even discipline. Discipline fell under safety because in addition to outside security, I wanted to ensure my child would be safe with the caretaker I chose for him. Hearing the discipline policies gave me a good idea of how staff were allowed to interact with the children and I visited several times while pregnant and on maternity leave to have chances to observe teachers in action. The fact that my center encourages parents to drop in any time, with or without notice, and has cameras in every classroom and big windows into them as well, made me feel that teachers were kept accountable and honest.
Lastly, tours are so important because you get a sense for the center’s environment. Some of the centers we toured had dim lighting, lots of crying kids, and a messy, weedy yard as the playground. The one we ended up choosing has bright and warm classrooms, and the kids were all happy. Teachers spoke in kind tones, even if they were having to be firm with a child. Their policies and curriculum are based on best practices and common sense. When four- and five-year-olds would pass the infant room, they would still get a hello and a hug from the infant teacher because that’s how much she loved each of those babies that came through her room. It was clean and the staff were all up to date on state requirements and could easily answer my questions about things like child-teacher ratios and food handling.
Knowing you’ve found the right environment for your child is a mix of the childcare having the right stuff and you having the right feeling about where your child is going to be every day. I have never regretted the childcare center we chose. The ladies who work there are so sweet and make every child feel loved. They keep open communication with parents and foster learning and creativity every day.