Choosing Childcare: Finding the Right Fit

How to Find the Right Fit For Your Family

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing Childcare

By Lauren Katims

Babies at DaycareLike many parents, Molly and Dan Feeley of Andover, Massachusetts began looking for childcare for their daughter long before she was born, heading out on visits to centers with equal parts determination and dread.

“It was actually a pretty emotional experience because I could already feel the guilt of leaving my child in strangers’ hands. I got teary-eyed when we toured each place,” says Molly, who works full time in web marketing at Tufts University in Medford. In the end, the Feeleys visited three different centers in the area before choosing the right place for their daughter, Maeve.

After a couple months, Molly got to know Maeve’s teachers and began to feel comfortable dropping her daughter off in the morning. “She seemed to be really happy there; her skills were developing and she was socializing with the other kids,” says Molly. When the Feeleys had their second child this year, they felt confident sending him to the same center.

Choosing the right childcare can seem overwhelming, especially when you’re a brand new parent and uneasy about being separated from your baby for the first time. But rest easy: several studies point to some wonderful benefits for children in daycare. Kids tend to develop social skills quickly from interaction with other young children, researchers have found. They even may develop school skills, such as holding a pencil and standing in a straight line, long before entering kindergarten.

Childcare providers differ in their philosophies about learning and playing, as well as how much this kind of care should cost. So it’s important to do some initial research.

Go With Your Gut

When visiting a childcare center or daycare operated out of someone’s home, pay attention to the overall feel of the place, recommends Vicki Folds, Ed.D., vice president of education and professional development for Children of America, a national chain of childcare providers. “I tell parents to do a senses test. How does it feel, sound and smell?”

Most centers have a person dedicated to answering questions, giving a tour and making your family feel comfortable. The Feeleys felt welcomed, Molly says, when their guide greeted them with a smile and was eager to answer all their questions.

To get an accurate view of how your child will spend the day, schedule your first visit during school hours. Another opportune time to stop by is during drop-off and pick-up times, when other parents can give feedback on their experiences.

Watch the center’s teachers in action and spend time with them – get to know them a bit on your visit, says Jeanne Lovy, director of early learning at Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. “TheNo. 1 indicator of a positive experience is the teachers in the classroom,” she says. “Look for a program that can grow with your family,” says Lovy. “You want to feel comfortable and confident.”

Next Generation Childcare Centers, also in Massachusetts, encourages parents to come in before their first day and learn where their child’s items will be stored, speak to the teachers and interact with other children.

The In-Home Environment

home daycareAn alternative to sending your baby to a childcare center is to enroll him or her in a home daycare. Home or family daycares are run in a licensed provider’s home and, depending on what kind of license the provider has, are typically limited to six children, ranging in ages. State law requires that, in cases with a single provider, no more than three of the children be under the age of 2 and that one of those three be at least 15 months.

Kathy D’Agostino has been a family childcare provider for 25 years and has a family childcare-plus license, which allows her to care for eight children at one time. The varying children’s ages can be beneficial, she says, because the older kids act like role models for the younger ones. D’Agostino has a 3-month-old in her group who sits on her lap and watches the older kids read, paint and engage in other activities. The oldest child she cares for is 5.

“I’m able to form great relationships,” says D’Agostino. “I care for not only the children, I care for the parents, too.”

Michelle Chase, who has run a daycare from her home for 5 ½ years, says home daycares are focused on free playtime, rather than the schedules childcare centers may rely on more. But, she says, all providers are required to develop a daily curriculum for the kids.

Know Your Provider’s Philosophy

Each school or provider has a different philosophy in terms of curriculum, or what activities the children will be doing during the day. For infants, some centers keep the kids on a strict sleeping and eating schedule every few hours; others base their schedule around the child’s needs.

“With infants, it’s all about catering to each child’s personal schedule,” says Kathleen DelPrete, vice president of marketing for Next Generation. Naps, bottles and feeding times dictate part of the day, but the balance of their time is spent with teachers doing activities that encourage whatever developmental milestone the baby is working on. For example, if a baby is learning to crawl, the teachers will have “floor time” to help develop muscle and coordination.

Most are experienced with babies who are breastfeeding, but it’s a good idea to ask about the policy. Next Generation, for example, accommodates mothers who want to provide frozen breast milk or who choose to come in and breastfeed on their breaks.

With an infant, it’s important to have consistency between what’s going on at childcare and what’s going on at home, says Folds from Children of America. If your daycare has your child eating every three hours, then parents should be following the same schedule at home.

To ensure that kind of consistency, most centers will brief parents – usually in the form of a written note or email – on the day’s activities at pick-up time. The note will cover the basics, such as diaper changes, bowel movements, feedings and naps, and any other useful information for parents.

Make Multiple Visits

Childcare and child development experts agree that parents should look for childcare options, especially for an infant, as soon as possible, so that the search process doesn’t become a stressful issue. Many schools have waitlists for infant care, DelPrete says, so she encourages parents to start looking early in their pregnancies and to “prepare for the best scenario rather than be left with no care when it’s time to go back to work.”

Most centers have an open-door policy for parents during the day, welcoming visits or phone calls, but adhere to tight security measures for strangers. Make sure that you understand your center's security policy and what arrangement are made for parents to have access at any time of the day.

Some parents aren’t able to stop in, so centers have implemented ways to let parents check in from their offices. These include web albums that are accessible to parents at any time, blogs and Twitter accounts.

Requirements and Price

Check your state laws for regulations regarding teacher qualifications, group size and child/teacher ratio.

Price will vary depending on your location and the hours that you child attends. Infant childcare is more expensive than toddler and preschool care because more teachers and attention are required in each classroom.  It’s important to look at value – what you’re getting for your money, says Meghan McGinley Crowe, director of research and development at Little Sprouts. Look at the supplies, toys and furniture. Are they all in good shape? Does each child have his or her own crib, clean blankets and bottle? Will snacks and meals be provided during the day?

At in-home day cares, most providers will give children breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day, and each provider sets his or her own prices and hours.

The Feeleys chose a center for their children based on the little extras, including heated floors in the infant rooms and an in-house cafeteria that serves two meals and snacks each day, Molly says.

The search for childcare can be an emotional one for new parents. But with advanced research and planning to figure out what will work for your family, choosing a childcare center becomes less of a daunting task and more of a fun and exciting experience.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing Childcare


Lauren Katims is a Boston-area freelancer.