What do I look for when vetting an infant daycare?
August 6, 2018 8:13 AM   Subscribe

My son will be starting daycare this fall at 13 weeks old. We are touring a couple places this week. I am totally green and have no idea how to get this places. Any tips? He has no special needs and is formula fed.
posted by pintapicasso to Human Relations (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is going to sound kind of cold, maybe, but look for places with five stars from NAEYC. You CAN get lucky with places that aren't highly rated by anything official, but to be safe, I'd go with this. In my experience, it's easy to go into this expecting your gut to help you make the decision, but it just doesn't work out like that in the long term. Your gut can be wrong. Go with officially vetted places. For infants, especially, you want a place where rules are followed and there are clear standards. I don't know if NAEYC is an everywhere thing, but look for something like it if not.

I mean, ideally, for an infant, you also want people who are warm and like to cuddle kids and who smile a lot and have a positive affect, but you won't know what happens after you leave, ever.

I'm also pretty strongly against in home daycares for tiny babies, but I know everyone has different feelings and opinions about this. It's just that when you have mixed ages (like in-home often does) toddlers can do things like feed your baby a grape, and it can happen in a moment, even with the care-giver right there. I just like same-age rooms and clear rules, particularly around bedding, changing diapers, and feeding.

Good luck! It's not always an easy process, but I hope it is for you! And my strongest advice? Don't ever hesitate to leave a place if it ends up feeling not right or hinky. I had a bad experience recently where I kept my daughter in a daycare for too long out of inertia and not wanting to upset anybody. Moving to a better place has been miraculous (see my history for the relevant question, even).
posted by hought20 at 8:22 AM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

You'll want to ask about
- kid:teacher ratios (there are state laws but some schools have a better ratio than that)
- what the process is like when kids are moved to the next level room. For example, where my kids went, they moved out of the baby room into the toddler room as soon as they start walking (not at some arbitrary point on the calendar)
- how they deal with teacher absences (one school posted on Facebook for subs and I didn't think that was a great thing - I would rather them have a pool of trusted subs to pull from)
- how they communicate about your baby's day - some send home a little sheet every day to show how many diapers they went through, how much they ate, etc. and that's nice

One of the best tips I ever got was to take a few seconds before you walk in the door the first time and then really notice how you feel when you do walk in. Is it a welcoming place? Do the people and kids seem happy? Does it smell ok? (they generally all smell weird in my opinion but usually it's from cleaning supplies) Because however you feel when you walk in is how your kid will feel when they are dropped off there.

One last thing - on the first day you drop the baby off, if you can, make a plan to meet a friend for coffee or something. Try not to go straight home or to the office if you can - it can be an emotional time and it's nice to prepare for that as well.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:30 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ask if you child will have a "primary caregiver". To me that was helpful because I always knew who to ask questions of, and was sure they would learn behaviors and habits. Ratio is important, but generally is set by the state. Make sure licensining is up to date.

My older daughter went to a daycare where all the employees were extremely young and energetic. That was great from toddlerhood on. My younger daughter was in an infant room with a bunch of old ladies. It was fantastic. I never had to worry that her cries weren't being attended or that she didn't get enough snuggles.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:45 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

My son was exactly this age when he started daycare. We looked at several centers in the area. One we went to was HORRIBLE. The baby room was dark, two staff members were feeding babies who were strapped into high chairs and they weren't interacting with the babies at all. They were just shoving food in their mouths with no eye contact and it was clear they were miserable. There were several babies asleep in swings and one who had a thick blanket wrapped around her head (!!!). We left and I was almost in tears in the parking lot and told my husband I'd quit my job before we sent our baby there. So, it is entirely possible to get a bad vibe right away.

Then I went to my state website and looked up the inspection reports for all the local accredited centers. I spent a horrified evening reading these reports and picked three centers to look at that had decent reports. I was unconcerned with citations for things like a crack in the paint or missing paperwork. I was VERY concerned about things like inappropriate discipline, not knowing how many children were supposed to be in the classroom, poisonous substances left within reach of toddlers.

When we met with the centers, I asked if they accepted unvaccinated children (a hard pass for me if they did), what their sleep procedures were (I was so upset by the unsafe sleep at the other place). The place we chose does NOT accept unvaccinated children (the director laughed and said, "HELL NO" to this question), they used sleep sacks only, and the "least restrictive" methods with babies. So no bouncers, swings, etc. I don't give a daycare all of my money to pop my baby in a swing all day. The place we chose ended up being great.

It's such a tough decision. Good luck!
posted by Aquifer at 8:58 AM on August 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was in exactly this place last year and these are the questions I wished I had asked:

Who is with your kid on a day-to-day basis? Is there a primary caregiver or two? A rotating cast of floaters? Some combination of the above?

How do they communicate with parents about day-to-day things? Will you see your child's caregiver at pick-up and/or drop-off? One of our kid's teachers works 6-2 and the other 9-5, so I don't see either of them at pick-up but do see them both at drop-off. Do you get updates throughout the day or at the end of the day? Our daycare has an app which I love even if they aren't always able update it in real time.

Visiting: What's their drop in policy for parents like? Even if you never plan on dropping in, their answer should be that parents are welcome anytime, at least when they're infants. (The admin at one of the daycares we visited told us we should ask this question at other places since we didn't know what questions we should be asking, and I think it's good advice!)

Food: Once you start solids, do they provide food or do you have to provide food?

Transitions: As your child gets older do they move into a different classroom with different caretakers? Or do all of the kids stay as a group with the same caretakers? If there is a transition to another room, how do they decide when that happens? Is it based on age? Ability? As someone whose army-crawling-only kid is getting moved to the toddler room full of walkers because she turns one year old this week and they have a spot open, I wish ours had a different policy!

Advice from friends and co-workers was very valuable for us too. Our kid ended up in a daycare we never visited before we were offered a spot (and we were getting down to the wire on finding a place) but I was comfortable taking it because a bunch of my co-workers send their kids there and had good things to say about it. Other than the transitioning to the toddler class to thing, we've been really happy with it and only now do I see that we lucked out at how well they handle these things.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 9:00 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I went with a (licensed, inspected) home daycare that had come strongly recommended by a colleague. I found the mixed age to be a plus - lots of interesting things for baby to watch, lots of older kids doing things for the baby to absorb and model; plus the caregiver generally only took 1-2 small babies at a time and she was a master of snuggling a little one while stage-managing toddlers. I liked that my baby didn't have to compete with a bunch of other babies for lap time.

I took the baby with me when I toured places, and went with the place where I could tell my baby would be loved SO MUCH OMG. I was less enthusiastic about the places that seemed like bouncer farms.

As you can see, this is in direct conflict with what others have said above, but it worked beautifully for us. Additional benefit: it cost, no joke, half of what the daycare center in town cost.
posted by telepanda at 9:03 AM on August 6, 2018

You can ask about staff turnover (you can do it subtly--when talking to all the staff you meet just casually slip in "so how long have you been here?"), or you can snoop online and look for job postings and see how often they are hiring. Childcare is a low-paying, exhausting job and I don't begrudge anyone for gettingtfo when they need to, but low staff turnover has always been a sign for me of a good center. The center my kid was at for his final 3 years before starting school had hardly any staff turnover. It was like a family. They all knew my kid very well and my kid knew all of them (he was there from age 2-5 and went through young toddler, older toddler and preschool rooms). The first place he was at from 1-2 had lots of turnover and it was clear that the staff hated working there, hated their bosses, and hated the company. That place actually had more stars than the better one because it was part of a franchise and very mechanically ticked all of the required boxes in a corporate sort of way, but it was not a happy place.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:08 AM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're going to view somewhere, turn up without an appointment, so that you see the place when it hasn't had an opportunity to prepare for a visitor.
posted by Grinder at 9:11 AM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some places have continuous surveillance video feeds accessible to parents; while this can be addictive, it also means you can know with some certainty whether your child is being left alone in a crib all day.
posted by aramaic at 10:14 AM on August 6, 2018

Think ahead and ask about how the center works for older aged children as well. My son started in a daycare that was great for infants, but once he turned 2.5 he was moved to a mix aged room where he was frequently ignored and spent lots of time watching tv. It's not easy to switch daycares and I wish I had been able to keep him in the same place from the start.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 10:27 AM on August 6, 2018

Remember that it isn't permanent. You can change if it isn't working for you. It is a pain but it is doable.

I personally prefer having childcare closer to home so that I can hypothetically take child there and then come home to get ready. Getting ready for work and getting child ready to go to daycare can be quite a morning task.

How long are people on duty? What are their breaks like? What is the vacation policy for the place? Is it closed for the winter holidays? Ask about staff turnover. If you can have a primary person for your baby, that is best.

Also your infant needs will be different from your older baby needs. An infant basically needs to be safely cared for, so things like being in a swing or something isn't a HORRIBLE deal breaker, but older babies need to wander and not be restrained for a great deal of the day. My nephew just switched to a different daycare for this reason. The folks at the old daycare were so sweet, but they had a bazillion kids to care for, so babies were in a seat for a good portion of the time.
posted by k8t at 10:33 AM on August 6, 2018

Do you have any friends in the area with slightly older kids? There are 3 or 4 places in my area that I could enthusiastically recommend with no reservations, either from our personal experience or from interacting with other parents.

Other than that, I agree with the advice to tour a number of places. That number could vary depending on the quality of places in the area and how picky you are. We went to ~4 different places when we were looking for a place for our first kid. One was a home daycare, which we decided pretty quickly was not for us. Then we went to a (generally well-regarded) daycare which was sort of 'meh.' It generally seemed like an OK place, but the setting was slightly depressing and it didn't seem like the kids were super-engaged. Then, we went to a place that just seemed so much more welcoming. It was a beautiful building, but more than that was that the teachers just seemed so into being there and caring for the kids. They had one of those cool strollers out front that could seat, like, 6 kids at once. We thought it was cute and asked if they took kids out a lot in it. The response was, "We don't really use it that much because it's so passive; we think it's much better if the kids are moving around and interacting with stuff." It was not the answer we thought we wanted, but it was such a better answer; that really impressed us.

I was just like you in that I didn't know what I was looking for and was worried I wasn't going to evaluate things in the "right" way. But it was pretty obvious pretty quickly which places were better. I probably would have been OK sending our kid to the "meh" place (and I think he would have been fine), but was glad we kept looking. If you have any friends/acquaintances with kids in the area, ask them. Places get a reputation pretty quickly, but it's likely something that only parents would be aware of (if you happen to be in SW Vermont, memail me).
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:13 PM on August 6, 2018

I wish I had taken a better look at the space -- are there windows? Are there separate rooms for quiet/loud play? Do caregivers seem "into" the kids? Do they ever use ipads? (Though hard to say on a tour when they are on best behavior!) What are the hours of caregivers (ie will you have a number of different ones during the day.)?

And definitely don't be shy about leaving if it doesn't feel right! We left one after a week when I realized it was awful. We tried another one and left after 2 months because it also seemed bad and my kid clearly hated it. But it took a lot of courage to do so both times. In the end, it just might have been that I was just the kind of person who does not like institutions. We found a nanny share that was the same price and we have all been thrilled with it.

(That's not to say that daycare is a bad thing at all! It's just that different childcare solutions fit different personalities. My sister always liked the reassurance of knowing others were around; I didn't really care about that as long as I trusted my nanny because I wanted one caregiver. I could never have known this when we started looking for childcare. So just keep an open mind!)

Good luck!
posted by heavenknows at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2018

Some things that made me choose the place I chose:

Security. (I was surprised to find zero security in a different, very expensive, highly rated place. Like I just walked right in... I could have walked out with a baby under each arm.) The place I chose had a code buzzer on the front door and line of sight from the always-staffed desk to the single front door.

Engagement - all the adults were on the floor, cuddling, reading, playing. Nobody was standing around.

Sleep hygiene - naps were in a darkened, fan-noised area apart from the main brightly lit space.

Multiple adults always present - less chance for an adult to act inappropriately.

Shady yard, spacious, mostly daylight-lit bright interior, pleasant padded patio - the whole space was inviting and nice to be in. (Other, more expensive places had been almost windowless, fluorescent lit, and physically crowded-feeling.) This is not as important if it's just infants I guess, but this place had them from 6weeks to 2 years in the same room, and I liked that too: it was nice for the babies to be around toddlers who were speaking, playing etc.

Hours. My husband and I both had demanding jobs. The place I chose was open 7-6:30. Other places were closing up at 5:30 and starting the clock on late pickup fees.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:47 PM on August 6, 2018

Response by poster: This advice was really helpful. The two places I toured were depressing and run-down with checked out caregivers and babies playing on a dirty carpet.

The problem is that I work 3 12s of varying days each week and my husband’s work hours are before 4am and dependent on the tide and weather. AKA - we have the worst schedule for daycare ever! These two places would have been able to accommodate our schedule as is.

Instead I went to that daycare accreditation site and found a place 0.5 miles away for $75 more a week. I toured it and it’s AMAZING. I feel like it would be beneficial for him to go, rather than something we have to do.

Unfortunately the hours don’t work with our current schedule, but I’ve messaged my boss about switching to a later shift when one opens up and until then we can cobble together friends and family to watch the baby. Thank you all for the advice !
posted by pintapicasso at 7:13 AM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

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