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A day-care(ful) decision

Published on: September 01, 2009

It’s a stressful — and crucial — decision: Who should you trust with your baby’s or toddler’s care? It takes a bit of sleuthing, but finding the right day care (the first time!) is time well spent.

First, the basics: Make sure any day care you’re considering is properly licensed in our state. That means it has regular health and safety checks of the facility, the day care staff members are trained and certified in infant CPR and first aid and that their backgrounds thoroughly checked.

Next, think about your priorities, says Elisabeth Bonbright Thompson, executive director for the Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network. Do you want your day care to be closer to your work or your home? What hours do you need? Consider the facility: the amount of outdoor space, the presence of pets, curriculums, religious affiliations, etc. And consider the cost. Day care rates vary wildly, but the nonprofit organization Zero to Three estimates the average cost for a baby in full-time day care is nearly $8,500 a year.

Now, check in with the experts. Contact your local child care referral center to get a list of licensed day care providers in your area. Some counties offer this service for free, others charge a small fee. The referral centers can put you in touch with a counselor who can help you narrow your search.

“Basically, any question you can think of to ask your child care provider, we’ve already asked them,” says Bonbright Thompson. “We put all of this information into our computer program so the phone counselors can pull parents a list that most closely matches what they want.” Counselors can then email you the names and contact information of the day care providers who meet your needs, and you can then call or visit their facilities. It’s not unusual for many day-care centers to have a waiting list of up to one year for accepting new babies, says Bonbright Thompson, so start your search early.

Day care or preschool?

Distinguishing a day-care center from a preschool can be confusing. Lisa Johnson, the mother of a 14-month-old son in Seattle, says, “For me it was just a bit unclear. When I started looking for child care, I realized a lot of the places are called preschools. I didn’t think a baby needed a school.”

So what makes it a school? The lines between day cares and preschools have been blurred in recent years. Many licensed child care centers offer preschool programs for young children. Colleen Hunter, director of First Place for Children, a child care center in downtown Tacoma, says her facility offers all-day preschool programs. “Basically, we use assessments to plan the kids’ daily activities. We do circle time, music and art activities, and we have a lot of different learning curriculums to choose from, so they’re not always doing the same thing.”

Whether it’s called a day care or a preschool, Hunter advises parents take time to visit in person. “Definitely do a tour,” she says. “Bring your child and hang out for a while to see if your child is comfortable there. Look around to see if there are enough toys for all of the children, and that they are in good condition. Watch the other children to see if they are happy there.”

Next, check to see if any complaints have been filed against the facility. Gary Burris, assistant director for the Washington State Department of Early Learning in Olympia, says parents will soon get even more help in choosing child care. “We’ve done a good job of providing parents with information when there’s a problem or a complaint. But now we want to also be able to tell parents what is good about a particular facility.” Burris is referring to a new law that will help give licensed child care providers more support and training, and will provide a ratings system to help guide parents.

For now, Bonbright Thompson has this to say to parents: “Trust your gut! A lot of times people hear about a facility from a friend. But you have to visit and get your own impressions. If you have a gut reaction that’s strongly negative or positive, listen to that, because it almost always plays out.”

Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance reporter, stepmother and mother of four.

Things to look for when visiting a day care or preschool:

• Facility is clean and safe
• Staff is trained in early childhood education
• Low staff turnover
• Well-organized rooms with spaces for artwork, make-believe games, books and puzzles
• Quiet place for napping
• Healthy food options for snacks and meals (if provided)
• Little — if any — use of television

Source: King County’s Child Care Resources

Resources for finding child care

Zero to Three

Washington State Department
of Early Learning

National Association for the Education of Young Children’s guidelines for child care

For information on choosing a preschool program, read ParentMap’s January 2008 feature story, “Picking a Preschool.”

Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network
Main number: 800-446-1114

Pierce County Child Care Resource & Referral


Snohomish County Child Care Resource & Referral


East King County Child Care Resources

Seattle/North King County Child Care Resources


South King County Child Care Resources


Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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