1. List your priorities
First, decide what you want. Are you looking for daycare near work? Or would one closer to your home be more convenient? Do you want your child around lots of other kids, or just a few like in a home daycare?
2. Do your research
Ask around to find the most reputable daycares. Friends and family can help get the word out for you, and personal references are the best kind. Ask some experts. The Childcare Aware can give you the number of your local childcare resource and referral agency, which, in turn, can refer you to licensed centers and home daycares in your area. If you find one with a stamp of approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association of Family Child Care (NAFCC), count yourself lucky. Make sure you chose the best overall situation for your child.
3. Visit and interview
You can ask a few questions over the phone (fees and ages of children), but you won’t really get a sense of what a daycare place is like until you go there and meet the staff and director. Ask daycare center directors and caregivers and home daycare providers about everything from hours, fees, and vacation schedules to philosophies on childrearing issues like discipline, feeding and sleeping. Get a schedule of the day’s activities and the center’s policies. Pay attention to your gut feeling and how the director or caregiver handles the questions. Basically, you’ll want a warm, clean, safe environment and experienced teachers who are paid well and happy with their jobs. You don’t want teachers who come and go. Pay attention to the caregiver-child ratios, and how many children are in a classroom. Some daycares now have web-accessible cameras in the classrooms so that you can check in on your kiddo from work throughout the day.
4. Check references
If a certain daycare has a buzz, ask other parents why they’re raving about it. Ask each daycare you’re considering for a list of past and present references. Nothing is more convincing than hearing how other parents rate their care. When you call, ask specific questions like what exactly they like about it and what they don’t. If their child is no longer there, ask why. You may also want to call your state’s Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against the center or caregiver.
5. Kid-test it
Come back and visit for a while with your child. You’ll want to see how he and the caregiver interact and if he seems comfortable in the center’s environment.
6. Get on the waiting list
Putting yourself on a waiting list almost guarantees you’ll get in at some point — even if it isn’t precisely when you need it. And be sure to ask the daycare for recommendations of other similar places. In the meantime, keep looking and arrange temporary care until a spot becomes available.