Tips for finding the right daycare

5 April 2019

For as much chatter as there is on the internet about kids, a few important topics get almost no air time. Wisdom about raising teenagers is one of them, and in my experience, daycare is another.

It’s not as “sparkly” of a topic as gift picks or product faves, and it’s not as universal as thoughts on feeding a toddler, but it is without a doubt one of the most important things to “get right” as a parent – and thus, is a topic worthy of sharing on if my experiences might be helpful for one of you. If you’re a new parent or perhaps not even pregnant yet (but looking ahead to the day when you are), and daycare is part of your care plan, this post is for you, with love from me!

Specifically, this post is for those who have decided daycare is the right fit for their family, and are now trying to decide between centers. Over the last three years we’ve toured 9 different schools and had children enrolled in three – a nationwide franchise with traditional hours, a local company with several sites in the Triangle and traditional hours, and an independent Montessori with school-based hours (8:30-4:30). We’ve had great experiences with all of them, and through the searches to land at these three, have identified what to look for to know if a school will be a great fit for our family.

Of course, everyone has different priorities when it comes to care for their kids, and the things we care about most might not match up with your priorities. As an important first step before you begin your search, I’d take some time to write out what matters most to you so you can judge each center against your criteria. Looking up the state rating, if your state has one, is a good place to start, but there is so much more to take into consideration!

Here are a few of the things we look for in a daycare/preschool, in no particular order:

1. When we visit, the first thing we talk about should be what we’re looking for in care for our child. In nine visits over the last few years, only three have done this — at any point in the conversation. Asking what we care about tells me they’re interested in building a relationship, that they’re invested in my individual child, and that they’re not simply going to provide a one-size-fits-all service.

2. Experience over degrees. This is a tip from my Mom, who was the director of a preschool for sixteen years. She always said she would hire a teacher with experience and passion over someone with a degree any day. I particularly think this is important for a teacher in an infant or toddler classroom, where I’d much rather have someone caring for my baby who’s raised their own babies and has years of experience to draw on than someone fresh out of school.

3. Management that treats their teachers well. If I’m paying more than my mortgage for childcare, I would like to know that not only am I thrilled with the care my child is receiving, but that her teachers are also being taken care of. For basic human reasons, yes, but also because well-compensated teachers who feel they are valued will be happier, which will lead them to do their job well, and will lead to less turnover, leading to a more stable environment for my child and for communication. To gauge this, you can ask outright what benefits their teachers receive, and of course you can also ask how long the teachers have been with the school.

4. Cozy rooms (balanced with cleanliness). Heck yes I understand the need to make it as easy as possible to keep classrooms clean and germ-free — but I also don’t want to feel like my child is spending the day in a linoleum box. Both June’s and Shep’s infant classrooms had plenty of soft surfaces, pleasing decor, and cozy nooks while also keeping them safe and healthy.

5. Lack of technology. It’s funny – most centers advertise the technology incorporated into the curriculum as a selling point, but it should come as no surprise that I was looking for the exact opposite. June is now at a Montessori school where there are no screens of any kind, and it’s heaven.

6. A commitment to outside time. Almost all schools have outside time every day (I think it’s a law in North Carolina!), but what do their outdoor spaces look like? What emphasis do they place on it? What are the kids doing outside? We were particularly looking for playgrounds that had natural surfaces – grass, mulch, etc. – which was surprisingly hard to find.

7. Flexible hours. With most traditional center hours (7am-6pm), we were paying for far more hours than we needed. We were SO happy to find June’s current school, which, among a million other wonderful things, allows us to pay for only the hours we need. This set-up seems to be rare, but is so worth seeking out if you’re in the same situation!

8. Teachers we love in the classroom we’ll be in. As long as the school is generally decent, in my opinion, the teachers matter more than the “brand” or experience of the school at large. The teachers are the ones caring for your child every day, and the people with whom you’ll be communicating. You should feel totally confident in who they are and their ability to love on your child. Yes, staff can turnover, and you’ll get new teachers as your child grows – but you can always reevaluate, if necessary, at that point.

And that leads me to a final piece of encouragement: when choosing a daycare (or, really, any kind of school), make the best decision for now, not forever. If you realize your child needs something different, or your priorities change, you can always switch schools. The right school at six months might not be the right school at three years, and that’s okay! You’re not making a decision for all of time – just for right now. You’re doing a great job, mama :)

Any tips to add, friends? How did you know your childcare was the one? Have any other childcare questions you’d like me to answer?

P.S. We lucked out with getting June into an infant program immediately because the center had recently opened – and then were shocked when we were 16th on a waiting list for Shep in April, for a November spot!! You do need to start your search early in most markets – I’d recommend in the second trimester.

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April 5, 2019 8:25 am

Yes, I agree childcare is something that is not talked about much! As well as how to handle things like sick kids or snow days. It has been one of the biggest stresses we’ve dealt with as parents (nanny quits! Wake up to a sick kid on an important work day! sickness that goes on and on! One entire salary going to childcare!) and while we’ve studied the perfect gift lists and the perfect sleep routines, we have been unprepared for many of the childcare issues. We live in a rural area and don’t have convenient access to centers, so we’ve gone the nanny and home day care routes and each have their plus and minuses. Our current situation isn’t perfect, but my kids are loved and cared for and they love it, which is the most important thing about any situation.

April 5, 2019 5:12 pm
Reply to  Kristin

Yes! We live in a rural area and only have a few options. Snow days are HARD in the Midwest, along with sickness that seems to never-end. I totally understand the struggle!

Megan B Schmol
April 5, 2019 9:45 am

And what a gift this post is to me, Emily! Thank you! After years or infertility and loss, I’m now 15 weeks pregnant with a little precious girl due in September. We live in DC and just learned from friends that we’re already behind on getting our name on waitlists! Apparently most daycare centers in our area have an average of an 18 month waitlist. Sigh. Our hand might be forced into a more expensive nannyshare for some time, but we’re still marching forward with our tours and applications. This post had so many helpful hints, that my husband and I are sure to reference many times over the next few months (years?). I especially loved the reminder to “make the best decision for now, not forever.” We’re deciding where to place our unborn infant who have yet to meet in this world, not where to send her to college! :) Thank you!

April 5, 2019 10:09 am

These are great tips! We are just a little over 2 months in to our first child being in daycare and are so grateful to all be having a good experience so far. In addition to many of the factors you listed, one thing that’s proving to be really valuable is the center’s close proximity to our home (which luckily is also not too far from work, either). Now that the weather is nice I often drive home from work, park the car, and then walk the half mile to daycare to pick up my son, and being able to ditch the hassel of parking and loading in and out of the car make the daily routine SO much more enjoyable. Our mornings in Minnesota are still pretty chilly, but once it warms up I’m really looking forward to more morning walks for daycare drop-off, too!

Kelly Strawberry
April 5, 2019 10:22 am

I love day care centers for a lot of reasons. The socialization, routine, exposure to germs, exposure to diversity…the list goes on! Proximity to work was important to me at first, as well as low teacher turnover. Funny you mention that you can always switch. I hate the thought of switching him, since he has developed strong friendships there. I’ve considered moving to one closer to our home, but can’t bear the thought of making him change teachers and friends.

I’m with you on a preference to no technology. My day care had an “upgrade” last year where the teachers got ipads to take pictures throughout the day and now the daily report is e-mailed. I do not really care much about pictures and much preferred the hand-written daily reports that were available when I picked him up. I’m tempted to tell the day care my preference for the old school method, lol.

April 5, 2019 1:41 pm

We (obviously) don’t have kids yet, but hope to in the next couple of years and this post is so helpful! I will definitely be coming back to this when the time comes. Also, it’s amazing how fast daycares fill up! We have (from what I have heard) a pretty good daycare right outside of our neighborhood, and in January a woman posted in our neighborhood Facebook page that the waitlist for the baby room was until September!

April 5, 2019 2:14 pm

I feel so very fortunate to have a daycare center where I work. I am a nurse and my daughters daycare is attached to my parking garage. Her teachers have been there between 20-30 years! I got on the wait list at 8 weeks, and didn’t get a spot until she was born. I highly reccend starting early. We are also fortunate that we just pay for the 2-3 days a week that we need, and they are flexible with make up days etc; Not having our own family around, her teachers have become a part of ours :)

Megan Harrington
April 5, 2019 2:40 pm

I feel like in Columbia, we live in such a bubble!! Maybe, in many ways, we really do. We don’t have big brand daycares as options here (I mean, maybe there is a kindercare or another type, but no one we know uses that). There are a couple of Montessori style schools, but they are SO hard to get into. We’ve considered it, but I really love where we are and we aren’t zoned for the puplic school montessori that I would consider for elementry age (wompwomp!). I really like the concept, though. Most of the daycare options available in Columbia are through church programs. Our needs were/are also different, and ever changing. I wanted to be at home the first year of having an infant and I’ll take maybe 4-6 months or so of time the second go round before I try for a part time spot or drop in program, so we were fortunate not to deal with getting on a list. It’s bananas here, anyway and I was thankful to avoid the stress of that. I used our drop-in nursery as needed before she turned 1. For us, our church’s program was a no brainer because of those who have gone before us and what we had heard. The educational aspect is advanced and the children are learning about Jesus and that was so important here. I’m involved on the Parents board, so we feel teacher retention is important as well and we try to emphasize that and make the effort to help that initiative. There are definite regulations and safety measures that the school abides by and they use a curriculum that we felt was great, too. She’s learning so many things and they even do Spanish and music and yoga and they do a use STEM techniques and the classroom is set up with cute centers and it feels welcoming and organized. It’s very hard to get into as an infant and then again as a preschool aged child (3), but we were lucky that we just needed part time care when we were ready and there was a spot available. Sometimes I wondered if age 1 was too young, but part time felt perfect and the socialization was so beneficial! She’s had some of the same classmates for 3 years running now and it’s SO fun to see them all grow up together. I highly encourage stay at home mamas to even get their kids to a part time program if it’s feasible! An odd fact here: being in a certain status of membership with our church increases our chances of entry and lowers our tuition (giving, serving, and involvement requirements are met-which, I know some people have a problem with, but we don’t). There are several great church programs all over the downtown area of Columbia and we just feel we lucked out in getting a spot at our church that we attend. We know the many of the parents and then see them again on the weekends and it just feels closeknit, but not too small. We were thankful they had part time options in addition to full time, in the event our needs would change. Sometimes we also use a seperate Drop-In program (available a couple mornings a week and paid for by an as needed basis) on the two days that LS isn’t in her 3 day school program (which only goes 9-12, with the option of extended care–which you just pay hourly for, which is a fantastic option here!). The drop-in is also housed at our church, but completely different (way less structure, different random mix of kids). I’ll be excited for the consistency of the 5 morning a week program for next year!

April 8, 2019 4:03 pm

When we were choosing for our son (10.5 months), we had two options that were extremely convenient and highly regarded. The one we picked is part of a large church, but it is run like a traditional day care center. Since they own the building, the costs are significantly less ($100 less per week, plus we can take the summers off which is great for us.. total this is about $6k less per year). Their teachers have extremely long tenures, and they don’t do any marketing, yet they have a very long wait list! The only negative was that it had fewer “extras”- the other daycare had a library, lots of technology (which I too, don’t love), a nicer playground. We rationed that until our son is actually using those things, he’s best served if we put that difference into his 529, and we’ll be ready to make that move later if we think that’s best. The world really seems to open up once they’re potty trained though- we have a lot of great preschool options!

April 14, 2019 3:27 pm

We lucked out and only toured two places: an in-home daycare and a facility style daycare. We went with the latter because the in-home did not have a fenced-in yard, and the woman who ran it came recommended by a friend so I was thinking that it would be a perfect fit. Kind of like trying to shop online, sometimes the best thing is to go look for yourself to see if it works! After that disaster, I made sure the next place was fully fenced :). It was and we have been there for almost a year and LOVE it!

April 16, 2019 6:32 am

So many amazing tips for making this big decision, and so interesting that even across the world, we relate to so many of the same things x