| Family Management | New Baby | New Parents | Ages 0–2

Choosing child care for your baby

From selecting a pediatrician to determining where their baby will be delivered, parents can be overwhelmed by the number of choices that need to be made before the due date. As many working parents soon discover, deciding about child care -- and specifically which child care your baby will attend -- is increasingly a choice that needs to be made while the baby is still in the womb.

Making such a decision prior to the baby's birth -- without knowing your child's temperament, personality or how you, as parents, might react to parenthood -- can feel daunting as well as premature. But when the best options for child care have a waiting list longer than your pre-birth to-do list, urgency sets in and you soon feel like you're in a race to find a seat at the table.

"The popular daycares have long waiting lists and are expensive," says Sandra Wallace, newborn program manager for PEPS (Program for Early Parent Support). "People are tired and often are in denial to the last minute."

So where should parents begin? Dianne Stetson of the National Infant and Toddler Child Care Initiative Team at Zero to Three, says that although the search should start before the baby is born and you need care, parents should wait to meet their child before making a final decision. "Once your child is born and you have the opportunity to get to know him and his temperament and needs, the setting you may have chosen may no longer seem like the right match for him," Stetson says.

Stetson recommends that parents take adequate family leave time, since it is a critical part of your family's child care plan and will provide the base of emotional support both you and your baby need as you transition to child care. Parents also need time to observe the child care settings that they are considering.

Zero to Three, a national organization for infant and toddler development, believes that three basic principles need to be present in any child care arrangement:

A good caregiver who is loving and responsive. This should be someone who hugs and cuddles, and responds to the baby's smiles, tears and emerging skills.

A caregiver who respects the baby's individuality. The caregiver should recognize the baby's personal rhythms, strengths and limitations, and should tune into these when planning the pace and time for eating, sleeping and playing. If the child has a special need, the caregiver should be equipped and comfortable to provide proper care.

An environment that offers good surroundings. The space should be safe and clean, and filled with interesting and stimulating things to explore. Nina Auerbach, founder and CEO of Child Care Resources of King County, adds that "for an infant, this might be as simple as colorful mobiles and shapes, picture books with big pictures and the tendency of the provider to talk to the infant throughout the day, which encourages language development."

Auerbach also suggests that parents look into the providers' communication skills and business practices, topics that can easily be glossed over when searching for care. She recommends that parents ask the following questions:

  • Does the provider give the parents daily updates on how their child did that day in child care?
  • Does the provider have an "open door" policy in which the parents can drop in whenever they want?
  • Are the fees and other rules, like those covering closures and pick-up and drop-off times, clear?

It is also important to determine to what extent the provider seeks professional development, Auerbach advises. "Research clearly shows a connection between providers who seek training and education and high quality. This is a much stronger indicator than experience. So I would find out about the educational background of the provider, and what she is doing to continually learn more about the field," she says.

Instinct is an important component of any decision related to child care, experts agree. For example, is the director of the child care center wearing a suit but telling you how hands-on she is with the kids? Your gut will tell you that nobody would wear a suit and interact with babies all day. Or does the parent handbook seem excessively lengthy and confusing? If so, you will likely discover that your interpretation of the rules and procedures regarding fees and holidays may be inaccurate, and you might find yourself in a pinch as a result.

Have the confidence to know that you can and will make a great decision, if you:

  • invest the time to prepare for what you need,
  • research the options available
  • provide ample time to do the legwork before you actually need the care.

Karen Dawson is a writer and public relations professional. She lives in Maple Valley with her husband and 4-year-old son.

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