When Should I Start Looking for Child Care?

Thinking about newborn child care can be overwhelming, but it’s something you shouldn’t delay.

When is the ideal time to start your search?

“As soon as you know you are expecting an addition to your family,” says Dr. Gloria Julius, vice president of education and professional development for Primrose Schools. “I’ve heard providers say that couples call them when they are just thinking about having a child.”

That’s because top programs have long waiting lists, especially for infant and toddler classrooms with smaller staff-to-child ratios.

Beyond the issue of enrollment, parents must do their homework to address many other details that matter to them. And that, of course, takes time.

“Advance planning is important to ensure that you have enough time to research adequately and visit enough providers so you are comfortable with your decision,” says Julius, who answered some common questions about the process.

How do I start looking for child care?

It’s OK to begin your search with some broad questions. Julius offers key points to consider:

  • Write down the types of services you want. Are you looking for simply a safe, clean, healthy environment — or do you want a greater focus on learning and education?
  • Determine your child care budget. Call potential providers to make sure they can accommodate needs such as cost, hours of operation and location.
  • Check the health and safety inspection reports available on most state websites.
  • Ask if a program is accredited by a reputable national accrediting agency. This is voluntary; programs must show they go above and beyond state licensing requirements. Providers generally care enough about quality to go through this rigorous process.
  • Talk to neighbors and families whose children attend the facilities. Once you’ve made a list of potential options, call each school to schedule a tour.

What should I look for when touring a child care center?

You’ve addressed initial questions through research, recommendations and phone calls. Now it’s time to see things up close.

“From the moment they pull into the parking lot, parents can learn a lot about a facility by observing and watching,” says Julius, who suggested several important criteria:

  • Use your senses: Look around: Is the building clean and well-maintained? Does it have a fresh, clean aroma? Listen for positive, caring language between caregiver and child. Examine food for nutritional value and whether children seem to enjoy snacks and meals.
  • Take stock of small moments: Notice how you’re greeted upon arrival in the building, hallways and classrooms. Are caregivers playing and interacting with the children? Or are they just sitting and watching them, or talking among themselves?
  • Spot safety hazards: Check that electrical outlets are covered and cleaning supplies are locked away. Ask about sanitation procedures (hand-washing, diaper disposal and cleaning of toys and surfaces). How do staff track where children are at all times?
  • Check toys and play areas: Examine toys to see if they’re clean, safe and within reach. Are there interesting toys and other materials for children to be creative? Find out if there’s a balance of outdoor and sensory play, free-choice learning and guided lessons.
  • Learn the routine: Have a staff member explain check-in and checkout procedures, including how teachers know who is picking up a child at the end of the day. How do the caregivers communicate with parents? What’s the policy if you’re running late?
  • Trust your gut: Emotions do play a role, and they’re often the determining factor when making a final decision. Families who tour a Primrose school often comment that they sense a difference there: It’s homey, friendly, clean and feels like a family.

What if there’s a waitlist for child care?

Although it can be disappointing to learn that a desired provider has no availability, simple strategies can help expedite an opening.

Julius advises taking the following steps without delay:

  • Join multiple waiting lists to boost the likelihood of admission. If a top choice is booked, you might gain entry in the future when a slot in an older classroom opens up.
  • Pay a waitlist fee, if applicable. Though not universal, it’s common for providers to require a registration deposit to hold a spot on the waitlist to ensure a child will be enrolled in the near future.
  • Check in with waitlist managers once a month — especially at your top two or three sites — to see if your child’s name is moving up the list quickly enough.
  • Be systematic in your approach. Keep diary notes when you call, remember the name of the person you speak with and, if possible, consider popping in regularly.
  • Keep a positive and professional demeanor. Rudeness, aggression or threats will not move your child’s name further up the list. In fact, it may do just the opposite!
  • Notify waitlist managers right away if your contact information changes. Child care centers fill slots fast; don’t miss an opportunity because someone can’t reach you.

For more information about searching for a child care provider, Julius recommends checklists from Zero to Three, a nonprofit that studies the development of young children, and the advocacy group Child Care Aware of America.

Once you’ve found a provider, check out these tips for transitioning to daycare.

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