One of the hardest decisions a working mother has to make is who will care for her child when she returns to work. Here in the DC area, moms start getting on daycare waitlists the minute the pee stick shows a plus sign because most centers have a wait of 6-12 months. And don’t even get me started on the fees they all charge to get your name on the list! I actually looked at one center with a 2-year wait for infant care and fees that you would need to renew annually to stay on the list. Thanks but no thanks!
Assuming your region is less competitive than mine, you probably have the length of your pregnancy to think about child care and research your options. There are a lot of things to consider like location, cost, hours, sick policies, a caregiver’s ability to handle breastmilk if you’re nursing, number of other children, and enrichment activities a caregiver offers. There’s also a tremendous amount of anxiety about getting this right because it’s your baby. It’s not like finding someone to water your plants while you’re on vacation.
Here are my thoughts on finding childcare. This is based on my experience seeking and finding the right situation for my family and it includes my hindsight reflections after three years in a situation that I loved. Please bear in mind that this is all just my opinion! Because this is so personal, it’s likely that my priorities don’t match yours perfectly and I forgot to mention something that’s weighing on your mind. Take this as a partial list of questions to ask and add your own as you go!
What Do I Want? There are three main, non-family care options for childcare: a daycare center, a home-based daycare, or a nanny. All three options have their pluses and minuses. Centers often have the longest hours and, since they’re a staffed facility, are the most reliable in terms of being open all the time. But your child will be one of many there and you may want a smaller crowd. Home-based centers are usually smaller but may not be able to accommodate your work hours — or they may be more flexible. Nannies offer great one-on-one care but if the nanny gets sick, you’re left scrambling at the last minute. Think about what will work best for your family.
You should also keep in mind that childcare can become an integral part of your personal community. The teachers, nannies, and other families involved in your situation will be a daily presence in your life. In my experience, this is a good thing. My son made fast friendships at his daycare center and we still, a year after leaving that center so I could stay home, have playdates with his old friends. My husband occasionally runs into C’s old teachers on the Metro and they ask about him. It was a sweet little place for all of us. Look at the community vibe with any childcare facility and see if it seems like a world you want your family to be a part of every day.
Who Should I Talk To? Other parents. Talk to current families using any care provider that interests you, as well as past families. Talk to families that only know the care provider by reputation to hear what the buzz on the street is. Check with accrediting bodies and state or local regulators to see if there are any adverse reports on file. Query people on local listservs and message boards for references. Listen to the good, the bad, and the neutral!
What Should I Look For When I Visit? Watch the kids. If I had to start from scratch with a daycare search, the thing I’d most want to do is visit right around drop off. You want to see how the kids react to walking in the door of their care facility. Sure, you can expect to see a few tears as mommy or daddy leaves to go to work, but one crying child being comforted by a teacher while the rest of the kids settle in happily with toys is a good situation. A room full of crying kids who don’t want to be there is a red flag. Also check for space, toys, cleanliness, atmosphere, security measure (e.g. passcoded doors), outdoor space, and parking for drop off and pick up. For a nanny, ask to shadow them for a day to see how they do things. Find out if they have their own car, if they’re CPR-certified, and if they have any special skills like being bilingual.
What Should I Ask? With a center, ask about staff longevity. High staff turnover isn’t good for the kids and can signal bad management. In the case of a home-based center or a nanny, find out how long their relationships with families last – longer is better and short periods of care before a family moves on can mean a series of relationships gone sour. Ask for a copy of their basic policies in writing so you know in advance what to expect with fees, hours, sick policies, daily schedules, etc.
You should also find out how the provider will take care of you. Parents of kids in childcare want a lot of information about their child’s day and knowing how that will be conveyed is important. Will the nanny text you during the day to tell you what’s going on? Will the center provide a daily report with information about feeding times, naps, and diaper changes? Does the center keep portfolios on the kids so you can see pictures of their activities? Can you drop by any time or do they restrict parent access? Some centers have live webcams you can log into. Is that something you want? And how do they handle emergencies? As a parent who has gotten the call that my child was hurt at daycare (he fell, lacerated his scalp, and required stitches), I can tell you that a solid set of protocols for an emergency situation is very important!
What Should I Keep In Mind After My Childcare Arrangement Begins? Trust your gut. If you don’t feel good about leaving your baby with your childcare provider, figure out why. It might just be the working mom blues but it might be an instinct that this isn’t the right situation for you and your child. If the situation isn’t right, change it. Don’t second guess yourself, don’t try to talk yourself into making a square peg fit in a round hole. Take the time and effort to find a new arrangement. I can’t tell you how many families I know who started with one childcare situation ended up changing within six months because it just wasn’t right. It was never a case of abuse or neglect, just situations that weren’t right for that family. It happened to me with the home-based care provider I initially chose. Her methods didn’t gel with my needs and I moved on to a center that was wonderful. You probably made this choice before your child was even born or just as you started back at work when you didn’t know what the rhythm of your new phase of life would be. You may have guessed wrong and there’s no reason to stick with it if that’s the case.
Remember, the right child care situation can be one of the best parts of your life. I can’t tell you how many days I went off to work smiling because my little boy had run happily onto the playground at school to ride trikes with his best little buddy. Take the time to find the place or person who is a good fit for your family. You can’t be too picky or too careful.
What was your top priority when looking for childcare? Please share your experience!
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