Woman with children
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Whether it's because you're a business executive, a part-time employee or someone who just needs an extra hand, childcare can be one of the most difficult decisions you'll make as a parent. Make sure you have the knowledge you need to make educated decisions about which childcare provider will be the best fit for your little ones.
According to Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, there are almost 12 million children under the age of 6 in some kind of nonparent childcare in this country. When choosing a childcare provider, there are certain questions you need to ask both yourself and the provider. But first, you have to decide what type of childcare you want for your children.

Figure out what type of childcare you want

There are two basic types of childcare providers: in-home/family childcare and center-based care. In family childcare homes, an individual provider takes care of children in her own home. Smith recommends this type of care from infancy to the preschool years. "In reality, if family childcare is done well, it's probably the better setting because it's smaller, more home-like, and there's more individual attention," Smith says. "So family childcare, regulated and done well, I think is a really good option for infant care.

"Family care is generally popular for younger children under the age of 3," Smith says. "Then they tend to migrate into center-based care between 3 and 4 years of age. By that time, parents are looking for a social experience for their child and more of a learning experience. Developmentally, children begin to interact with each other around 3 years of age."

Other forms of in-home care aren't necessarily regulated by the state and include in-home nanny sharing, which is more popular in urban communities, and au pair care. An au pair is a foreign domestic assistant who comes to live with a host family and shares the responsibilities of childcare and housework for a small monetary allowance. Not only are au pairs affordable, but you're able to have convenient, live-in care and expose your children to different cultures.

What to ask prospective childcare providers

When deciding on a provider that's right for your children, take into account the quality of care, Smith says. "The threshold for getting into [childcare] is very low," she says. "What we've seen over the last several years is that the people with a degree in the field going down, at the same as the number of people who are coming in with a high school education or less are going up."

This means parents have a strict responsibility to make sure their little one is paired up with the right type of childcare and with a high-quality caregiver. "Frequently, parents don't feel very comfortable ... going into somebody's home and asking for a background check," Smith says. It's important to get over that awkwardness immediately, she says. "We need for parents to know, eyes wide open, what they're dealing with and to not be shy about asking the questions."

Many parents believe childcare providers are being regulated or they are licensed, but Smith says that's not the case. "A lot of childcare in this country falls outside of licensing," she says. "When you start talking about the individual types of childcare, it's very important for parents to know what's going on in their particular state."

Some questions you might want to ask when you first meet the childcare provider:

  • Do you have a license?
  • Have you had an inspection?
  • Have you had a background check? What does it consist of?
Also, parents have to make sure the childcare worker(s) have had necessary background checks. For example, not all states check sex offender registries for childcare workers. "It's really sad because those checks are easy and they're free," she says. "Anyone can check those records. In some cases, where states are doing bigger, broader background checks, [parents] assume sex offender registries are checked as a part of, say, an FBI fingerprint check. That's not necessarily the case, because child sexual abuse is not necessarily a federal offense."

Is your childcare provider a good match?

If you feel the childcare provider has "passed" the previous round of more technical questions, start asking more about the environment of the home or childcare facility.

  • What is the adult-to-child ratio in the program?
  • How is your child going to spend her day?
  • Does this childcare provider or program agree with my philosophy of childrearing?
  • What is the provider's take on child guidance and discipline?
Parents should go with their gut instinct when visiting a childcare provider, Smith says. "If your gut instinct is good, then keep looking around," she says. "If it's bad, get out of there because there's no way that you should leave your child where your basic instincts says it's not a good situation for child. The parent is the best predictor of their child's fit in a program."

Recommendations also help in deciding if a provider will be a good match for you. If you have the same expectations as friends and family members who also have children in childcare, advice from them can be a good way to find a caregiver that's right for you and your children.

Characteristics of a good childcare worker

If you're still interested in the program or provider, find out more about the individual caregiver. "Start focusing on: 'Who's going to care for my child, what are the qualifications of that person and how do I feel about that person?'" Smith says.

Here are some characteristics Smith recommends looking for in a caregiver.

  • Wants and likes to be with children
  • Motivated to work
  • Has a sense of humor
  • Feels a connection with children
  • Has common sense about what a child needs
  • Stays calm under pressure
  • Has enough physical energy to keep up with your child
  • Possesses a positive attitude
And if you find the right match for your child, sometimes these bonds between caregiver and child last long after the children are cared for.

"The quality of childcare really depends on the adult-child interaction and how good that is," Smith says. "That requires someone who has the ability to focus in on a child, where she's at, what her needs are (developmentally). The expectations are really important."

Get the NACCRRA's checklist on how to find high-quality childcare.

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