Whether you're looking for day care for an infant or toddler, the editors at Parents magazine suggest these guidelines:
Ask friends, family members and co-workers for referrals. Word of mouth can be an excellent resource. Also check with community centers, religious groups, your local La Leche League, parenting newspapers, your pediatrician's office and even the maternity center of your hospital.
Begin making calls and, more importantly, visits. Ask about the background and credentials of the day care director and staff. Find out whether the lead caregiver has a child-development associate credit or at least three years of experience.
Look at staffing ratios. Most states set a minimum standard. An ideal ratio is one adult to three infants and one adult to four or five toddlers.
Inquire about staff turnover. You'll want caregivers to develop ongoing relationships with your child to foster the development of trust. Rapid turnover hinders this.
Ask providers about their child care and discipline philosophies.
Discuss what the provider permits in terms of parent visits and the flexibility of drop-off and pick-up arrangements. If a provider discourages unexpected drop-ins, ask why.
Observe the facility closely. Do the children appear content, engaged and alert? Is the atmosphere stimulating and nurturing? Are children treated with kindness and respect?
Check whether toys and materials that could be choking hazards are out of reach or locked away. Are the toys age appropriate? If the room or play area seems overcrowded to you, it probably is.
Ask to see eating, sleeping and changing areas. Facilities should be clean and organized. Soap should be at every sink, and the staff should be scrupulous about washing their own and the children's hands.
Ask about the meal schedule and variety. If your child has a food allergy, find out what precautions the center takes to ensure that he won't be fed a problematic food.
Look for outlet covers, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and window guards. At least one person in every room should be certified in CPR and have up-to-date first-aid training.
Some tips for parents once their children are in day care:
Pick children up before the center closes.
Address concerns when they happen, but not in front of children.
Don't put infants and toddlers in child care for more than eight hours a day.
Communicate with teachers about what's going on at home, including social, emotional or developmental changes.