If you’ll be returning to work after your baby is born, you probably know that open daycare spots can go faster than ice cream melts on a hot day. Still, for your child’s wellbeing and your own peace of mind, it pays to get picky.

Starting about a few months before you’re ready, “visit three to five daycare programs,” says Kris Murray, author of The Ultimate Child Care Marketing Guide and a consultant to the childcare industry. To narrow your selection, here are the top questions Murray suggests asking daycare providers that can help you know if you’ve found the right place – or if you need to keep looking.

What activities will my child do? The code word to listen for is “curriculum.” With emerging research about early brain development, top childcare programs aren’t glorified babysitters. They’re full-featured learning environments, even at the infant level because learning starts from birth.

“There are all sorts of age-appropriate curriculums available now, from baby sign language in an infant room to early reading, nature, science, art, technology and drama programs for toddlers,” Murray says. Each program is typically organized into themes. If the theme is insects, for example, your toddler might be asked to dress up as his favorite bug for the drama unit, paint a bug for the art unit and learn about insects in the computer lab for the technology unit. To you though, it may all just look like fun and games. But that’s the idea.

“Children learn best through play,” Murray says.

What’s the teacher to child ratio? It’s important for your child to get plenty of attention, especially the younger she is. Babies and toddlers 12 months old and younger need an adult to child ratio of no more than 1:4 (one adult per four infants). For toddlers 12 to 28 months old, the ratio should be 1:3, one instructor per three children. Small class sizes of 10 to 12 children or less is preferred too. Even if there are plenty of adults to children, a larger group of toddlers can feel chaotic.

What’s your policy about unannounced visits? The best answer is, “No problem. We have an open door policy.” Impromptu parent visits should always be welcome, Murray says. After signing your child up, you should be able to drop by anytime.

How will I know what my child did all day? Some daycare centers will distribute a daily activity sheet detailing what each child experienced that day, such as what she had for snack and how often her diaper was changed. Even better is paperless communication. Many daycare centers offer e-mail or texting messages two to four times daily.

It’s a big plus. Imagine sitting in a meeting and getting a text from your child’s daycare or preschool with a video or photo of a picture he just painted. “Real time streaming helps you stay connected to your child’s day,” Murray says. When you pick your child up, you can say “Look at the cute pictures I got from you today” and talk about them together.

What are the qualifications of your caregivers? “Ask for a list of the teachers, which includes the number of years of experience they’ve had in the field, their degree (in early childhood education for the lead teacher) or the training they’ve had,” Murray says. Lead teachers should also have five to seven years of experience. With practice comes the competence to handle challenging issues, such as fighting and other behavioral problems or potty training in a toddler program.

Are drop-off and pick-up hours flexible? If you work from home sometimes or need a half-day help here and there, look for a daycare option works with your nontraditional schedule. Daycare that’s less than fulltime is a growing trend. “For a monthly membership fee, many daycare centers will allow you to drop off your child whenever you want,” Murray says.

What’s the security situation like? Most childcare programs are safer than they were five years ago. Some now, for example, have biometrics at the entrance. Instead of punching in a code at the door, you’re be required to place your finger on a pad to enter the building. “Stricter regulations on safety and background checks are now required in many states,” Murray says.

When touring a daycare center, ask whether the children are monitored by a secure webcam. Is the feed distributed to the director’s office so there’s oversight of what’s happening in the classroom? (Good.) Can you have access to the feed as well? (Double good.) Not only does camera surveillance provide peace of mind because you can see what’s going on, it allows you to engage in your child’s day (“I saw you help Sam pick up his crayons. That was so nice of you.”) “You get to spy with a positive purpose,” Murray says.

How often do the kids get to go outside? Beyond extremely hot or cold weather, “there’s no excuse for children not to get outside every day,” Murray says. Your childcare center should support the full health of the child, which includes spending time in nature and being active.

What’s your disaster recovery and emergency policy? If there’s a fire or disaster at the school, you want to know that teachers have been properly trained to respond quickly and effectively to get every child out. Every teacher should be trained in CPR too.

Ask yourself: Am I comfortable with the environment? After you’ve narrowed it down to your top picks, spend an hour or two hour observing a classroom when the kids are awake (not at nap time). What’s the vibe? The daycare center should feel open and warm-hearted.

Teachers should look like they’re happy to be there and engaged with the children. If you get a good feeling about the place, chances are your child will like it too because he’ll pick up on your satisfaction.

Finally, confirm your selection by finding out what everyone else has to say. Review testimonials from other parents on the daycare center’s Facebook page and review sites such as Yelp. “Sometimes there are disgruntled employees or an occasional unhappy parent,” Murray says. “If you see 10 great reviews and one negative one, you’re probably fine. Look for a preponderance of positive.”

-Sarah Gordon

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