Ask the grumpies: What to look for in a daycare?

Leah asks:

How do you pick a daycare when there’s not a clear “best option” (ie no TV, nurturing, good food, and all attendees vaccinated).

bogart notes:

Two dimensions I didn’t realize the value of, on childcare, until I was using it were proximity to home (or work, but if two parents work different locations, I’d emphasize home), and flexibliby in dropoff/pickup times.

There’s a lot of personal decisions involved, of course (for example, we were willing to forgo flexibility and proximity in some cases, but our jobs are flexible, also we were completely price insensitive).

For us the main thing is spending a lot of time watching the daycare and watching the kids. Do they play together (or near each other) nicely? How are conflicts resolved (are they resolved)? Do the teachers seem to have a second sense about what’s going on in the room, stopping conflicts before they start?  A good teacher will interrupt talking with you (or any other adult) to quickly prevent a fight from happening.

At a couple of the daycares we have given money to (but not for long) the teachers spent most of their time cleaning and getting ready for activities and taking down activities and not so much time watching or interacting with the kids during that time.  Good daycares will either have one teacher setup/cleanup while another interacts with the kids or they’ll have the kids involved with setting up and cleaning up (as in a Montessori situation).

Do the kids seem engaged? When there’s not so much interaction, kids can either become little hellions who don’t listen to directions or they can seem neglected.  If they crowd around you and silently stare at you for long amounts of time when you spend time at the school… they may be a bit neglected.  It’s creepy.

It’s important to see how the teachers treat all kids, not just yours.  Because that’s how they’re going to treat your kid when you’re not watching.  Do they keep awake infants in bouncies or swings longer than the recommended maximum time (I believe 20 min)?  Do they hold and cuddle babies and toddlers?  Do they talk with the babies or just with adults?

Obviously no TV, good food, vaccinations etc. are important things too.  And in many states you can see the state violations and if they’re important (leaving infants alone) or unimportant (letting two mats touch each other during nap time).

There’s various places where you can find recommendations for child/caregiver ratios.  For infants, 3/1 is what high quality daycares are aiming for, but your state law may be higher.  The ratio really does make a difference in what caregivers are able to do.

The best daycares we’ve been to have had a culture that the kids are inculcated in.  That sounds a bit disturbing the way I phrased that… but at the Montessori that we loved but went out of business, they had property rights and kids knew that whoever had the toy didn’t have to share if they didn’t want to, but certain equipment you had to take turns on.  Little kids were taught to trade when there was something they wanted that someone else had (our new Montessori does all the former stuff, but doesn’t seem to teach trading).  “Walk away” meant to walk away.  “Sit sit” or “seat on the seat” means to sit down.  Kids who were antsy got the “jump up and down” song, and so on.  Another great religious daycare didn’t do property rights, but had a focus on sharing instead and praised that.  They also had their culture of sayings and traditions that we could use at home– if someone hurt someone else, the hurter would give the hurtee a hug and say they were sorry and then everything would be instantly better.  It’s good to see if these kinds of things are repeated, and they’re repeated across all of the rooms of the daycare across the different ages as age-appropriate.

Anyhow, our recommendation is to visit a bunch of daycares and watch.  You’ll get a better idea of what you like and what you don’t just from seeing what works and what doesn’t.  Of course, if you find that it’s too late to make it off a waiting list, we also have recommendations for mother’s helpers here.

Grumpy Nation!  What suggestions do you have for Leah?

13 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: What to look for in a daycare?”

  1. Leah Says:

    Would these also apply to in-home daycare? That’s the majority of the options in our town. The really good centers are a 20 minute drive north (and thus 20 minutes away from work, which is next door to our house).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’ve never used in-home daycare. We’re really risk-averse, so we want something that either we’re there for or that gets checked up on by the state on a regular basis. In-home daycares are regulated differently in different states– you’ll have to look at the laws in your state to see whether or not they’re regulated at all and if they are, how often they’re checked and so on.

      • Leah Says:

        I’m risk averse too. There are regulations and licensing for in-home day cares, so there are inspections of some sort. I haven’t been able to figure out how to find inspection reports in Minnesota. I do know people who used to run in-home daycares in town, so they went through the list of all the providers to highlight/cross out based on their knowledge of various folks.

        One of our friends (who will have two kids — ages 3 and 6 months — by the time our kid would need care) has suggested that she would love to be our full time care person. We’ve discussed with her some, so we’re including her in our interviews of care providers.

        My hardest part is thinking about influences on the kid. I’ve read so much about good language that nurtures and supports your kids. Is it enough to have those good influences at home, or do I have to make sure daycare providers deal with a picky eater or a precocious kid in my way? I wish our jobs were flexible enough to let us do more of our own childcare.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        With eating for an infant, the important thing is that the provider doesn’t force-feed the baby. They’re also supposed to take a little break after every oz or so of bottle feeding. Picky eating is really not something to worry about any time soon. (Read Hungry Monkey for the science of picky eating, and because it’s hilarious.)

        I don’t know that there’s much to worry about in terms of precocious kids because everything that the child does when it’s that little is teaching it something. The only problem is that precocious kids may sleep less and may be more active than other kids, and if they’re stuck in a crib without stimulation for long periods of time because they’re supposed to be sleeping like normal kids that could get to be problematic (or they’ll sleep at daycare and not for you!). Also people who aren’t used to so much activity may be overwhelmed for long periods of time (even parents!) especially if they’re used to more chill babies. Our DC2 really needed to be doled out in small doses– an entire day of hir could wear out an active college student.

        Check out our list of questions for mother’s helpers– some of those may be applicable to in-home care as well.

      • Leah Says:

        yes, your questions look great! We have been struggling to figure out what to even ask. We’ll have to put together a list this weekend and then start calling places. This is not something I look forward to. Seems weird to have to call around 8-9 months before I need someone.

        We had an ultrasound yesterday. Our baby has feet! I’m excited to see we have human in there and not a tentacle monster.

    • bogart Says:

      2/3 of the daycares I used were in-home. Full-time daycares are heavily regulated in my state and part-time ones are not; thus, the FT one I used (ages 0 to 3) was, and the PT one I used (ages 3 – 5) was not — but it was run by a family friend who has known me literally my entire life.

      I really liked the in-home setups we had. The FT one was a family; the mom ran the daycare, but her DH worked second shift and her teen daughter was often there in the afternoons, so there were not infrequently 2 adults to 5 kids (kids ages 0-5). And ours is a (fairly) small town, and — though this is not how I identified the place — I knew other parents who had had their kids there and was able to talk to them as well as to more recent clients (whose names/contact info. I got from the provider) as references. Upsides to in-home setups: very small numbers of kids. No snow days (cancellations). No staff turnover. Downside: entire setup is contingent on one or two people, so if he/she gets sick or has a family crisis, stuff falls apart (this did not affect us, but in fact that care provider had once had to take a leave of absence — meaning close her business for a time — because of health problems. Our PT setup was quite quirky, reflecting the personality of the provider, but we knew what we were getting into. I’ll note, too, that, pre-K, we never used a single daycare arrangement for more than 16 hours/week of care, which is a context where things that might be a problem if my kid were there longer, really didn’t phase me.

      The last year DS was in daycare we stuck with the PT setup for 2 days/week (=8 hours total) but also added an “institutional” place because I felt something larger and more structured would help him be ready for K, which I think it did. This wasn’t about the academics (at all), it was about “life skills” like having spent some time in a room that had more than 5 kids in it at one time (the prior maximum, and that wasn’t just his “class” but facility-wide as the in-home places had just one “class” each), and having to walk through hallways to a cafeteria and such.

      • bogart Says:

        Whoops, above should specify that FT in-home places are heavily regulated here (not just institutional ones), in case that wasn’t obvious.

      • Leah Says:

        Thanks for your weigh-in about in-home setups. I appreciate the extra input! One thing we’ve considered is going with something local for the infant stage and then looking to more enrichment as our kid gets older. We really prize not having to commute. I think I could commute for a year, pre-k, to really get good enrichment. But I don’t want to lock myself into 5 years of commuting to give my infant extra enrichment at the snazzy centers I’ve looked at in other towns. Wish we had better places in our town.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    “property rights” == megafucken lolz.

  3. Practical Parsimony Says:

    If I were looking for daycare now, I have specific things I would look for. Right now, my 4 grandchildren are school age, so this is from my far past. Plus, my dil took a five-year break from teaching to stay home and my daughter was a sahm. I used in-home daycare or friends for the isolated days I needed someone.

    One woman kept the tv on all day. My daughter was only two but knew what she watched. Some were new programs that she could not have known about. Plus, when I arrived early one day, all the kids were eating Cheerios and watching TV. She had eaten so many Cheerios that she was not hungry for any dinner. The woman had assured me she did not allow TV very often. After two days I never took her back.

    Back then, I did not worry so much about home care. Now, I do. At one home care my friend and I used, I arrived to find my girl child (2) upset. My friend’s little girl (2) was hysterical, had been crying for a long time, ran to me and begged me to take her. She sobbed and choked and was inconsolable, clutching my clothing. I had to clean the snot from her and her clothes. The mother waited placidly. The husband was there. I just got a creepy feeling. The girls were too young to say what happened. None of the other children seemed to be affected. I would be very careful if any other teens or adults were present at any time in the home daycare. But, how can you assure that?

    At the same home care and before the girls were upset, I arrived to find my daughter in the front yard with strangers to the home care worker! It seems the newspaper wanted a picture of my daughter for the front page of the newspaper because they wanted a cute picture. My daughter had on a gingham pair of overall-type outfit with a matching bonnet and lace all over. The woman who ran the daycare did not have common sense. I knew the photographer, but the woman had no idea who she was. The photographer just knew she cared for children and knocked on the door and took my daughter to the front yard. The photographer friend did not know she had taken my child outdoors for a photo.

    The other home daycare that was a nightmare of abuse was nearby and very handy–across the street. I could walk to get my child or send one of my older children. The clergy visited the woman every Tuesday. One mother pulled her child’s diaper down and there was the distinctive odor of semen. Another woman’s son would cry hysterically within blocks of the home and refused to turn loose of the mother. Formerly, he had been content. He woke in the night screaming “No Miss XXX NO” for months after the mother took him out. That place closed several months later for “repairs.” When she reopened, none of her old clients returned. She had a cooling off and opened like nothing had happened. All the parents had been warned. There was no regulation here in 1977. We all no that a certain clergy has never been involved is sexual abuse.

    No one ever reported her and I only found out several years later.

    The best place I ever took a child, the second child, was a daycare on the campus where I attended school.

  4. Dana Says:

    We were very happy with our daycare center for my son’s first year plus. He is now 21 months though and I’m pretty sure he is bored. He is the old man in the 1-2 year old room (sometimes all infants 6 weeks old through 2 years are together) and they can’t/won’t move him up to the 2-3 year old room any time soon. I think being bored and only interacting with much younger kids is leading to issues with him pushing and being aggressive. We are working on the aggressive behavior but once that phase passes I think we have to consider whether we need to look at other daycare centers or whether it isn’t as much of a problem as I think. So what works for daycare at one age may not work at another age, the issue is never 100% settled is what I take from this.

  5. Chelsea Says:

    I agree with the advice that you’ll be able to figure out what you want and what questions you have once you’ve visited a few places. The center we chose for DS was the last place we visited (out of about 6). Only one was absolutely unacceptable. The others would have been fine, but the one we chose was wonderful about getting back to me when I called, was able to offer us a further discount because DH is still a student, was able to offer us an infant spot when all the other places could only wait list us, and – most important – I got a really good vibe from watching the interactions between the kids and staff, kids vs. kids, and staff vs. staff. At the time, it was really a “gut” decision, but I’ve been very very happy with it for the year we’ve been there.

    • Leah Says:

      Thanks for the advice! We’re going to start looking soon. We don’t need daycare until Sept or Oct, so I’m hoping I am not too late to get an infant spot *fingers crossed.*


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