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How to Select a Great Day Care Center

A friend is expecting her first child in October and asked for my assistance. Could I help her select a day care center for the baby? To her untrained eye, they all look the same. So she wants some advice on how parents can tell the difference between a good facility and a bad one.

I understand where she's coming from. I too had trouble selecting a child care facility back when I was pregnant with my first baby. At the time, I used criteria that seemed critically important but in retrospect should have been at the bottom of my wish list. For example, I wanted a day care that was open nearly every day of the year and that was within just a few blocks of my home. While those two things matter, the care children receive is obviously far more important.

Needless to say, my first day care experience was a disaster. But I've learned a lot since then. Here's my new list of what parents should look for when shopping for child care:

How to Find the Best Care
1. Class Size
One of the most important things you need to find out is how many children are in each classroom. Every state has strict laws on this and you'll want to know if your day care follows the rules. While you may not initially think a few extra kids are harmful, they are. Additional children can lead to more chaos and less attention for your little one.

2. Caregiver/Child Ratio
There are also laws about how many caregivers are needed in a classroom. In New York, for example, you need 1 caregiver for 4 infants. It's not unusual for a facility to try to skimp on staff if they think the parents don't know any better.

3. Outstanding Violations
Since day care centers are licensed the state inspects them and publicly posts any violations that it finds. I highly recommend that you use this resource, which you can find online. Problems to watch out for may include a lack of cleanliness or incomplete employee background checks.

4. Outdoor and Indoor Play Space
Any quality day care will have both indoor and outdoor space for the kids to play. If the children go to a public playground for their fresh air, ask the center what its policies are for making sure the little ones walk back and forth safely and that no one gets left behind. (Yes, children do get forgotten.)

5. Teacher Turnover Rate
Ideally, your child should have the same caregivers for an entire year. (Or, at least from September through June if the center is run like a school.) High teacher turnover can be extremely disruptive for your precious one. Also, it could be a sign of a poorly run facility with unhappy staff.

Once you have satisfactory answers to all of these questions, you can start to focus on the experience your child will have. After all, you want to make sure the day care center is also providing your kid with a loving and stimulating environment.

To evaluate the experience, I always recommend observing a classroom for a morning. If your child is at least one, ask if he or she can tag along and play with the other children. You should also request some references from parents at the school.

I also always like to know if the day care center turns into a preschool. And if so, what is the curriculum like and how educated are the teachers. If you can find quality child care along with a true nursery school, you've basically hit the jackpot.

If you'd like more tips on selecting a day care, check out my book The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Photo courtesy of Shellorz on Flickr, CC 2.0.
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