10 Questions to ask before choosing a daycare

By Sandra Gordon

If you’ll be returning to work after your baby is born, you probably know that open daycare spots can go faster than ice cream melts on a hot day. Still, for your child’s well-being and your own peace of mind, it pays to get picky.

Starting about a few months before you’re ready, “visit three to five daycare programs,” says Kris Murray, author of The Ultimate Childcare Marketing Guide and a consultant to the childcare industry. Local experts at thread, a statewide Child Care Resource & Referral Network, also suggest getting a head start on searching for childcare. “It’s never too early to ensure that your child will have licensed care that is safe, healthy and playful,” says Rebecca Sentner of thread.

To narrow your selection, here are 10 top questions to ask daycare providers that can help you know if you’ve found the right place – or if you need to keep looking.

What activities will my child do?
The code word to listen for is “curriculum.” With emerging research about early brain development, top childcare programs aren’t glorified babysitters. They’re full-featured learning environments, even at the infant level because learning starts from birth. “Skilled and knowledgeable professionals know how to look for your child’s strengths and needs and design playful learning activities throughout the day that support your child’s emotional, physical and cognitive development,” says Sentner. “There are all sorts of age-appropriate curriculums available now, from baby sign language in an infant room to early reading, nature, science, art, technology and drama programs for toddlers,” says Murray. Each program is typically organized into themes. If the theme is insects, for example, your toddler might be asked to dress up as his favorite bug for the drama unit, paint a bug for the art unit and learn about insects in the computer lab for the technology unit. To you though, it may all just look like fun and games. But that’s the idea. “Children learn best through play,” Murray says.

What’s the teacher to child ratio?
It’s important for your child to get plenty of attention, especially the younger she is. Babies and toddlers 12 months old and younger need an adult to child ratio of no more than 1:4 (one adult per four infants). For toddlers 12 to 28 months old, the ratio should be 1:3, one instructor per three children. Small class sizes of 10 to 12 children or less is preferred too. Even if there are plenty of adults to children, a larger group of toddlers can feel chaotic.

What’s your policy about parent visits?
“All programs should allow time for parents to visit with their children during the day,” says Sentner, whether it is with an “open door” policy or during a specific timeframe based on the activities of the day.

How will I know what my child did all day?
Some daycare centers will distribute a daily activity sheet detailing what each child experienced that day, such as what she had for snack and how often her diaper was changed. Even better is paperless communication. Many daycare centers offer e-mail or texting messages two to four times daily.

It’s a big plus. Imagine sitting in a meeting and getting a text from your child’s daycare or preschool with a video or photo of a picture he just painted. “Real time streaming helps you stay connected to your child’s day,” Murray says. When you pick your child up, you can say “Look at the cute pictures I got from you today” and talk about them together.

What are the qualifications of your caregivers?
“Ask for a list of the teachers, which includes the number of years of experience they’ve had in the field, their degree (in early childhood education for the lead teacher) or the training they’ve had,” Murray says. Lead teachers should also have five to seven years of experience. With practice comes the competence to handle challenging issues, such as fighting and other behavioral problems or potty training in a toddler program. In Alaska, state child care licensing requirements “ensure all early childhood educators are getting a minimum of 24 hours of specialized training per year,” says Sentner. This is a minimum, however, and many programs will exceed licensing requirements.

Are drop-off and pick-up hours flexible?
If you sometimes work from home or need half-day help here and there, look for a daycare option that works with your nontraditional schedule. Daycare that’s less than fulltime is a growing trend. “For a monthly membership fee, many daycare centers will allow you to drop off your child whenever you want,” Murray says.

Is this a safe and healthy place for my child?
Your child’s health and safety should be the primary concern of any childcare program. That includes adult-to-child ratios that ensure children are under direct supervision at all times; proper storage of cleaning supplies; clean and sanitized surfaces; criminal background checks on each adult present, and more. Many programs take additional measures, such as secured entrances, sign-in procedures at the front desk, and video cameras to ensure children are safe in both classroom and outdoor environments, says Sentner. When touring a daycare center, ask whether the children are monitored by a secure webcam. Is the feed distributed to the director’s office so there’s oversight of what’s happening in the classroom? (Good.) Can you have access to the feed as well? (Double good.) Not only does camera surveillance provide peace of mind because you can see what’s going on, it allows you to engage in your child’s day (“I saw you help Sam pick up his crayons. That was so nice of you.”) “You get to spy with a positive purpose,” Murray says.

How often do the kids get to go outside?
Beyond extremely hot or cold weather, “there’s no excuse for children not to get outside every day,” Murray says. Your childcare center should support the full health of the child, which includes spending time in nature and being active, adds Sentner. “When children learn healthy behaviors early on, it can have a lifelong impact on their quality of life.” For preschoolers, this means at least two hours of active playtime every day; for toddlers it means at least one active hour; and for babies, it means “tummy time” throughout the day.

What’s your disaster recovery and emergency policy?
If there’s a fire or disaster, you want to know that the teachers have been properly trained to respond quickly and effectively to get every child out. Is there someone always present who is trained in CPR and First Aid?

Ask yourself: Am I comfortable with the environment?
After you’ve narrowed it down to your top picks, spend an hour or two hour observing a program when the kids are awake (not at nap time). What’s the vibe? The daycare center should feel open and warm-hearted. Teachers should look like they’re happy to be there and engaged with the children. If you get a good feeling about the place, chances are your child will like it too because he’ll pick up on your satisfaction.

Finally, confirm your selection by finding out what everyone else has to say. Review testimonials from other parents on the daycare center’s Facebook page and review sites such as Yelp. Parents are a great source of insight into the program. If you see 10 great reviews and one negative one, you’re probably fine. Look for a preponderance of positive.

For more questions to ask and resources on finding the right day care provider in Alaska, download thread’s Family Interview Packet: threadalaska.org/child-care/_child_care_search/thread_family-interview-packet.pdf

–Julia Moore contributed to this article