In some parts of the country, getting your kid into the right daycare can be as competitive as getting junior into an Ivy League university. And while the situation is ripe for parody—the stuff of clever situation comedies and witty romans à clef—it’s also one of the biggest challenges a new parent will face, with a price tag to match. (The annual cost of child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition at the average four-year public college in most states, according to one recent study.)
So where — and just as importantly, when — do you start? Well, pretty much the moment your at-home pregnancy test reads positive.
We’re kidding. Mostly.
Here, then, are some tips for getting your kids into a great daycare.
Start early and research thoroughly
Your child could be spending 40 or more hours a week with a group of people you don’t know well (and might never have met), from teachers to fellow students. How do you ensure that time is spent well? That your child is safe and cared for, attended to in a way that’s in line with your values?
You do your homework, that’s how. And take it from me, a dad whose kid has been in four daycares (plus a nanny!) in her four short years of life: There is a lot of homework to be done. It takes time, and it takes energy, things that are in short supply for new parents. But this is important, so budget plenty of hours for both the research itself and for discussing it with your partner.
Define your goals, including what “great” means
I almost forgot: Congrats on becoming a parent! It’s wonderful, I promise. Just know that while you no doubt have the best of intentions now, you will, in fact, make some compromises along the way. (For example, we all know screen time isn’t great, but when it’s six in the morning and the kids are up and you just want to drink your coffee in peace, you realize God invented iPads for a reason… right?)
Anyway, one of those areas where you might need to compromise is in selecting your child’s daycare. You might find an immersive, progressive school that’s the total embodiment of your ideals… only to realize it’s nowhere near your daily commute. You might find a comically convenient center around the corner from your house, but just feel a bad vibe when touring the facility. Or you discover it’s way over your budget. More than likely, you’ll find a wealth of options between those extremes: Good (but not perfect) places, convenient(-ish) locations, prices you can (sort of) afford, with caring staffs (that will never be as loving as you are with your child).
Which means you need to prioritize what means the most for you and your family and go about figuring out which of your options is most in line with those priorities. Things to consider include the aforementioned budget, values, and location.
Additional considerations: Rules (both for children and for pickup/dropoff times); approach to discipline; approach to mealtime (including what food is provided, if any); curriculum (particularly for toddlers and up); license and accreditation; and your overall gut feeling about the place.
Ask around (online and off)
In a weird way, finding a daycare is like finding a great Chinese takeout restaurant — a trusted recommendation can go a long way. You can solicit recommendations offline, IRL, by asking parents and neighbors you know. Or parents and neighbors you don’t know — we’ve found that strangers are often happy, even eager, to discuss their child’s daycare centers. Ask the parents you meet at playgrounds or even in the waiting room at your ob-gyn or pediatrician.
You can also go online to find opinions and information. Ask your Facebook friends, ask people on Nextdoor, look up area mommy blogs or mommy groups (or daddy blogs/groups, if you can find them) and get a sense of what people are saying. It might help to ask about a few specific providers, rather than asking for open-ended recommendations.
Finally, your state or local government will likely have an online database you can reference as well, in case you’re having trouble just finding providers in the first place. Google your city and “licensed daycare.”
Tour in person
Once you’ve found a few options, schedule times to drop by. Go with your child, if possible, so you can see how he or she responds to the space. Does she feel comfortable? Does he pick out some toys to play with? Does she interact with the other kids (if allowed)? Be prepared to ask questions and observe how the other kids are behaving. Do they seem happy and stimulated? Bored? Ask what a typical schedule is. Does it align with your values and how you hope your dearest spends his or her day?
You’ll also want to ask about staffing and class size. How long have the teachers been with the school? Is there much turnover? How many children are there per classroom? How does the school communicate with parents — via email, text, an app?
And then you’ll want to observe the basics — is the center clean and safe? Are there smoke alarms? Are doors locked so children can’t enter an unsafe space? If possible, talk to the teachers and caregivers, who may be less likely to give you a sales pitch than the administrator who is guiding your tour.
Finally, consider returning unannounced. This will give you a sense of how the center is on a normal day, rather than when the employees are putting on their best face for a prospective parent.
Safety research online
As mentioned, your local government likely has an online database of daycare facilities like this one for New York state. You should also find a database of any safety violations. The lists can be vaguely chilling in the way that dry, bureaucratic reports are — what does it mean that a door was unlatched, or that a facility lacked up-to-date paperwork? — but they can open your eyes to potential concerns. If these reports reveal an issue with a facility you are considering, be sure to ask for an explanation, as well as information about the steps they have taken to reduce the chance of future violations.
State databases should also reference each center’s accreditation. This will vary by state, so you’ll want to brush up on what types of licenses are available in your state. Some family-run centers and faith-based facilities are held to a different (but not necessarily better or worse) set of standards than publicly-funded programs, for example.
Suffice it to say it’s a big decision, and there’s a lot of work that goes into making it. And while you should obviously take as much time as you need, you’ll also want to consider that the best centers often have waiting lists, in which case you’ll need to get your name on said list as soon as possible. Don’t worry, though — even if your child doesn’t get into the perfect center, she can still make it into that fancy Ivy League school you’ve been daydreaming about.
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.