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Choosing a home daycare for your child means asking a lot of questions and being observant. Start your search about six months before you'll need childcare (the best places fill up fast)—and use the following list as a guide.
Keep in mind that you may not get everything you're looking for—and that's okay. You may find a licensed provider with a safe, clean home who loves kids and interacts well with them, and who offers a wide range of appropriate activities, though she may not have an educational background in early childhood development.
Ideally, a good home daycare should have:
A good reputation
The daycare should have a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and be known for its nurturing environment. Ask the provider for names and numbers of current clients, and call them for references. Also, your own first impressions definitely matter here.
Bottom line: If you don't hear good things, and it doesn't feel right when you're there, keep looking.
Established ground rules
It's important for a home daycare to be flexible—letting you pick up and drop off your child at different times, for instance—but it should also have clearly established regulations for everything from operating hours to how to handle emergencies. That way you know the provider takes her responsibility—your baby—seriously.
Sick-child policy: Look for a provider with a strict sick-child policy. Find out which illnesses mean your child has to stay home and for how long (See When is my child too sick for daycare?).
A tough policy may inconvenience you if your child is ill, but keeping sick children (and adults, for that matter) away from each other makes sense. A good home daycare helps cut down on illness by requiring all children and caretakers to have current immunizations and get regular checkups.
Open-door policy:A provider that doesn't have an open-door policy and encourage parents to stop by unannounced could have something to hide. A great caregiver will go beyond merely letting you in by inviting you to come along on field trips, help out with activities, and become part of the "family."
Food policy: If you have to bring your child's food, find out the provider's guidelines. Some may request that you not pack nuts or that you pack only nutritious foods. That's okay—caregivers who don't restrict certain food may not have your child's best interests at heart.
If the provider does offer food, find out what she serves at meal and snack times (and make sure she's aware of your child's allergies). Does she encourage healthy eating habits and cover all the food groups? If not, keep looking.
Bottom line: If a home daycare is poorly organized and has lax or nonexistent rules, it's not likely to be right for you.
A stimulating curriculum
The best home daycares have structured schedules that include plenty of time for physical activity, quiet time (including daily story time), group programs, individual activities, meals, snacks, and free time. Television and videos should play little or no part in what your child does all day.
A well-thought-out curriculum stimulates your child's development and makes daily life more fun. Also, look for a home daycare that offers regular outings that are well supervised, stimulating, and age-appropriate (like trips to a park or museum). These are good for your child and are often something a large center can't offer.
Look for a provider with a wide range of age-appropriate toys that encourage your child's development and, as she gets older, stimulate creative, imaginative play. See our lists of the best toys for each age group.
Children should also have the chance to play outside every day (weather-permitting, of course). Running, jumping, and skipping are good for them physically, mentally, and socially.
As with outings, make sure children are adequately supervised while they play outside. If you live in a city, where many houses don't have safe outdoor play yards, make sure the home daycare has the next best thing—a spacious indoor area.
Bottom line: If your child won't get a wide range of age-appropriate activities, move on.
A qualified, committed caregiver
Anyone who makes a career out of caring for and teaching children should be educated and experienced. At least two years of college and a background in early childhood development (though many states don't require this) are ideal, as is CPR and other emergency training.
But you may soon realize that this standard is harder to achieve in home daycare situations than in center care.
Home daycare providers do tend to have more hands-on child raising experience than nannies or center employees, because they're usually mothers themselves. Ask about a provider's experience and training when you interview her. If you really like her, but she doesn't have all the emergency training you'd like, consider paying for her to take a course.
Home daycare providers should genuinely enjoy being with children and love to help them learn and explore. Observe how the provider interacts with the children.
Providers should be responsible, enthusiastic, and well prepared. If you see her getting down to eye level to talk with children as individuals, consider that a promising sign.
Look for a provider who shares your philosophy on sleep, discipline, feeding, and other care issues. A good provider will ask detailed questions about your child's health and care requirements to help determine if it's good match.
Make sure the provider is caring for the right number of kids. Too many children and not enough adult supervision means your child is likely to get less attention than he needs and deserves. Besides, small groups encourage interaction and development.
According to the National Association for Family Child Care, (NAFCC), home daycare providers should comply with the adult-to-child ratios approved of in the state in which you live. An NAFCC accreditation ensures that your home daycare provider follows all of your state's home daycare regulations
Bottom line: If the provider seems bored, overworked, or inexperienced, keep looking.
Clean, safe facilities
A good home daycare is clean and sanitary. Floors, walkways, and the kitchen should be kept clean. The trash shouldn't be left full for too long, the caregiver should wash her hands after every diaper change, and the house should have adequate heat, light, and ventilation.
A plan for emergencies should also be in place and exits should be clearly marked. Just because it's a private home doesn't mean it shouldn't meet these standards.
As far as safety is concerned, check whether the home is secure: Strangers shouldn't be able to just walk in off the street—and children shouldn't be able to wander out.
Toys and play equipment should be in good condition, upstairs windows (if any) should have stops or bars, all medicines and other hazardous substances should be out of reach and locked up, bedding should be fresh and firm (to reduce the risk of SIDS for babies), and the outdoor play area should be level and secure.
Working smoke detectors should be in place, radiators and heaters should be covered or otherwise protected, a first-aid kit and fire extinguisher should be close at hand, and all standard childproofing techniques should be followed (This includes covered outlets, safety gates, door latches, and so on.)
If the provider is going to drive your child in her car, make sure your car seat will fit.
Bottom line: If the provider's home seems rundown or poorly kept, skip it.
A current license
A license isn't a guarantee of quality care (that's why you have to evaluate the caregiver herself), but you really shouldn't consider any home daycare that doesn't have up-to-date state credentials. Unfortunately, many states have less than stringent licensing requirements, especially for home daycares.
Some require only that the provider mail in a self-certification form or to add her name to a list. Nevertheless, ask any potential provider to show you her license (and call your local social services department to double-check)—it's certainly better than nothing.
Providers must also meet state licensing regulations for health and safety. A very few home daycares have been accredited by the National Association of Family Child Care; if you find one, consider yourself very lucky.
Bottom line: A license isn't everything, but if the provider doesn't have one, keep looking. Read more about signs of a bad home daycare.
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