Pretty much the moment I got pregnant, people advised me to lock down a childcare provider—and thank goodness, because as a newbie mom, I didn’t realize the norm that is long waitlists for daycare centers and in-home caregivers. We were making the huge decision of who would be responsible for our child day-in and day-out. And we had to factor our work schedules, budget and parenting style. Throughout the entire process, I worried about asking the “right” questions to ask a daycare or looking like an overly anxious parent (#guilty).
Here’s the reality: once you’ve landed on a few daycare options, expect to ask a million questions. It is both normal and expected. After all, how else are you going to determine the best fit for you and your family? That’s why we’ve put together a quick list of the 10 best questions to ask a daycare provider when you’re trying to make this decision.
1. Are you licensed?
“The absolute first step you should take when choosing your daycare is to make sure they are operating legally and have the proper documentation in order,” says Brigida Aversa, founder and COO of Tiny Hoppers. “Ask the daycare to provide all related information so you can ensure your child is left in good hands.”
Most traditional centers are assumed to be licensed, but it doesn’t hurt to ask to see documentation as well as a rating from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). LeeAnn B., a mom in Wisconsin, also asked to see recent copies of state inspections, any violations and the plan to resolve any violations. Don’t stress about putting a center on the spot with such an inquiry, either—this information should be readily available, and if it’s not, consider that a red flag. In-home providers also need to be licensed, of course, but you can additionally ask how long they’ve been offering childcare and request recommendations from other parents.
2. What are your rates?
When you’re touring a daycare provider, you’ve probably already vetted it for cost, but it’s worth bringing up again in person just to confirm rates and policies around extra fees. For example, Corinne E., an expecting mother in Minneapolis, discovered that most centers charged the same rate for four days a week and five days a week, but offered a steep discount for three days a week. She also asked about late pick-up fees, knowing the responsibilities of her particular career often required her to be at work early in the morning and past 5 p.m.
“I noticed many daycares posted on their website they were open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.—but if you left your child there all day, there was an early drop-off or late pick-up charge,” says Laura Ford, a mom in New York with a 14-month-old. “It’s worth asking, ‘If your child stays the full opening hours, is there an extra charge?’”
Other questions to consider on the childcare payment front: can you pay online, or do you have to pay by check? Are you expected to pay by the week, every other week, or on certain days? Can you pay a month up-front (certainly a luxury, but also one less thing on your to-do list)? Do rates vary between an infant and a child over the age of one? And if you’re signing a contract, which you should eventually do, are there any late fees or charges to cancel or remove your child from care?
3. What are your policies on vacation/sick days/snow day/summer hours/etc.?
My husband and I eventually landed on an in-home provider for our son, and we’ve been really happy. But one major difference between that choice and a regular center is the fact that we pay every single week, rain or shine. If we pull out our kid for a summer trip, we still pay the weekly rate; if our provider takes a pre-scheduled day off, we still pay. We knew this upfront, so it’s been fine for us, but it’s essential to know exactly how things like vacation time, sick days, snow days and summer hours will work.
Good follow-up topics to cover:
- If my kid becomes ill, how long do they need to stay home before returning?
- Are there any COVID-specific guidelines?
- Are you open if there’s inclement weather?
- Which holidays are you closed for?
- Does your daycare follow any school closure guidelines?
- Are there any options for vacation days or weeks with no charge?
- Can I pull my child out for the summer, and keep their spot reserved?
- Do hours change throughout the year for any reason?
4. What are your teacher-to-child ratios?
According to Krystal Rogers-Nelson, a parenting and child safety expert with Safewise, understanding things like classroom size and caregiver turnover can help you determine if a certain daycare will lead to your child feeling safe and happy. She suggests asking about the teacher-to-child ratio, as it should be around 1:4 for infants and 1:6 for preschoolers. From there, she recommends learning more about staff turnover, how long caregivers have worked there, and what kinds of certifications are required.
“All caregivers should be certified in first aid and CPR, and ideally have a certification in early child development/teaching,” Rogers says. “Or, at least 2 years of college in early child development, as well as additional training/professional development each year that keeps up with the latest research and trends in evidence-based, quality care.”
In-home providers are a little bit different—while they should indeed have key certifications, like CPR, they may not have an education background, nor may they anticipate playing the role of teacher in the first place. In terms of a teacher-to-child ratio, you’ll want to ask how many kids they care for, and at what ages.
One way you can get a glimpse of how teachers interact with children at a daycare is to observe during a tour, or ask if you can stop by an in-home when children are present. Ohio mom Lisa Deliberato realized this firsthand with her toddler. “As your kid gets older, you realize how much they pick up from their environment and you want them to be surrounded by adults who inspire them to learn, treat each other with respect and make them feel safe,” she says. “We’ve been fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers, but it’s not tough to spot the ones who are just going through the motions.”
5. Is there a weekly learning plan?
In my experience, one of the main differences between an in-home and a center involved the curriculum: the former tends to be much more lax on structured learning, and the latter usually has set plans that outline what kids are learning at each level. Both are completely fine—it just depends on what you’re looking for, in general, and based on the age of your child.
Still, many parents want a balance between education and fun; they don’t want their kid plopped in front of a television all day, and rightfully so. For an in-home, you can ask what types of activities are done with the kids each day, or what their policies on technology involve. And for a center, asking to see a weekly or monthly learning plan can help you understand the schedule of the day, as well as learn if different types of play are promoted. It’s also helpful to know how much time they get to play outside and whether there are any temperature guidelines (i.e. when is it too cold or too hot to play outside?)
6. What food and drink are provided?
When we first met with our provider, she explained her stance on food and drink: breastmilk and formula were both welcome, kids needed to eat breakfast before arriving for the day, and she’d handle lunch and two snacks. That worked for our family, but the thing is, I didn’t even think to ask her about the food situation before she brought it up. That’s why checking in about how food is prepared or handled, as well as what expectations exist on both sides at various developmental ages, is a good call.
“Like any well-meaning parents, we try our hardest to provide a healthy, well-balanced diet to our daughter at home and want her daycare options to align with these efforts,” says Deliberato. “All centers should abide by the U.S. government’s nutritional guidelines, but know that this could still mean they are eating packaged snack foods more often than you’d like. If they don’t have alternate menu options, ask if they will let you bring your own meals for your child.”
7. Can you tell me about your discipline policy?
About a year or so into daycare, our provider handed me a little note during pick-up regarding my son’s “time-out” that day. I didn’t mind, as the situation was definitely warranted that day, but I realized I had never really asked how she handled discipline. I just assumed we would be on the same page, and though we certainly are, I wish I had brought this up from the get-go.
Offer up a theoretical situation with questions like: “If little Johnny hits/bites another kiddo, how will you handle that?” or “If our child throws tantrums all day, what’s your approach?” Or, Aversa says you can make your own observations while touring a center during working hours. You’ll want teachers who are firm, but fair, and who don’t lose their composure.
In addition to discipline, asking about cleanliness or safety precautions can be helpful, too. You should be able to see the bathrooms, kitchen, playground or toys/playroom to see what kind of environment your child will be in, and those locations might be good fodder for constructive conversations about discipline. (Last one from the other week: “If my son dumps out all the diapers wipes and baby powder, what happens?” Face palm.)
8. How do you communicate with parents?
“The first daycare our daughter went to had an app, which was amazing,” says Deliberato. “It was updated in real-time with details about meals, diapers, naps and photos/notes of achievements or funny moments. When we moved her to a new location, they did not have the feature and we realized how important this access to information was.”
Knowing how a daycare communicates—Do they text? Call? email?—with parents when something happens is critical. For example, you want to be able to check in during the day for peace of mind, or be easily and quickly contacted if a simple cough gets worse.
9. Where do kids nap?
If you’re a parent of a child under the age of five, then you know naps are clutch to a good day. It makes sense, then, to ask how a daycare provider handles them: where do kids sleep? Are they by themselves, or next to other kids? Does it match your napping schedule at home? Do they put kids down for naps awake, or let kids fall asleep first? Does everyone nap at the same time, or whenever they fall asleep? What happens if a child won’t or doesn’t nap?
“I was shocked when they transitioned my one-year-old from napping in a crib to napping on a cot,” says Jannae L., a mom of two. “That was at a center with my second. My first was at an in-home and she napped in a dark and super quiet area with no other kids around. This made it hard for her to nap in any other setting where there was noise or light.”
10. What are your policies and childcare philosophies?
All in all, you want to get a good sense of the policies and childcare philosophies of the daycare provider. “Make sure their policies work for you and your child’s needs and that their childcare philosophies mesh with yours,” says Rogers. “You want to make sure they are organized, with written policies that lay out clear expectations for sick children, emergencies, and payment. And you want to make sure they provide varied curriculum, opportunities for student-led, hands-on activities, consistent structure and caring discipline strategies that focus on guiding and redirecting rather than punishing or shaming.”
This article was originally published in 208 and has been updated for timeliness.