Choosing child care that's right for your child -- and your child's age and temperament -- is very important and can be difficult. You have to be clear about the most important values and beliefs you have about bringing up children. You must be confident that the caregiver you choose will give your child individual, caring attention and provide the kind of daily environment and activities that are appropriate for your child's age and stage of development. Understanding the types of care available and your child's developmental needs will help you make the choice that's right for your child.
Choosing quality care -- whatever your child's age
The type of care that's best for your child will depend not only on your child's age and temperament, but also on your needs and financial situation. It's also important to realize that your needs and wants may change over time as your child grows older.
For example, you may want care for your infant or toddler that is as close to your home or workplace as possible, so you can check in easily on your child's situation and shorten the travel time between child care and home. You may also feel that you want a small and homelike environment for your very young child. Once your child is a preschooler you may feel that you want to find a setting that will provide a wide variety of children and experiences for her, and that distance from home is less important. You may also want to look for a situation that you know will be able to provide continuous care as your child gets older so that you can minimize the number of changes he has to make.
It will be important to determine before you begin to search whether you are eligible for any subsidy from your employer or state government or any other group. This will help you to focus on the options that are within your budget.
It is also important to think about the kind of involvement you want in your child's care situation. If you decide on in-home care, you can give direction to your caregiver. Some child care centers invite, and others require, parent participation in parent meetings and fund-raising activities, while still others may expect parents to spend time working as a helper with one of the groups of children at the center or to help with other projects.
Right from the beginning you will want to look for
* caring people who like children and show sensitivity to their needs
* caregivers who have had some specific training and education in child development and in working with young children
* a steady, reliable arrangement
* a healthy, clean, and safe environment that provides nutritious meals and snacks, and spaces and equipment that have been made safe for children's play.
* interesting, challenging daily activities for your child that are appropriate for her age and stage of development.
These qualities can be found in different forms and types of care. You may find safe, nurturing, educational care in any one of the following types of arrangements:
* a family child care home
* an in-home provider
* a child care center
Infants (up to 18 months) Leaving an infant in someone else's care can be difficult, but it is usually harder for the parent than for the young infant. Finding an arrangement that you feel comfortable with is more important than the age at which your child begins care. Here are some things to keep in mind:
* If you feel happy and positive about your baby's care arrangement, your baby is more likely to be happy with it, too.
* Look for a caregiver who is warm, caring, attentive, and patient. Does the caregiver make eye contact with you and your baby? Will she spend a lot of time holding and cuddling your baby? Will she sing and talk to your baby, and provide her with interesting sounds and experiences?
* Look for a caregiver who has experience caring for infants.
* Look for a healthy and safe environment. Does the caregiver respond right away when a baby cries or is upset? Is the home or center clean and safe? Are electrical outlets covered? Is the diaper-changing area clean and well organized?
* Look for an environment that has specific play areas and stimulating materials designed for babies. Does the space contain materials and options for babies as they grow? Do any cribs or infant seats have colorful mobiles or pictures mounted in sight of the baby? Are there kicking toys, rattles, and things for a very young baby to play with? Is there a special, safe space for crawling babies to explore and play? As your baby begins to toddle and walk, are there safe things and places for her to hold on to as she moves around the room?
* In a multi-age situation, find out what the caregiver does when the older children in the situation need her attention. Do babies spend a lot of time in a crib or a play yard?
* Look for a place where parents are welcome to drop in while the child is in care . Quality care depends on parents and caregivers working closely together.
* Look at the number of children per adult in the center or home. The infants-per-adult ratio is important because it has a direct impact on how much individual attention your baby receives. Most experts feel that one family child care provider should care for no more than six children, and no more than two of those children should be under the age of 2. In centers, the recommended child:staff ratio for infants under the age of 15 months is 3:1 and should not be more than 4:1.
* Look at the ages of the children and the size of the group your child will join. Experts recommend that even when there is more than one adult present as caregiver, groups for infants only should include no more than six children, and no more than nine children if toddlers are part of the group.
Toddlers (18 months to 3 years) During the toddler years, your child will learn to explore, with his mind and his body. He will enjoy books and stories, building, experimenting with sand, water, playdough, and paint, and learn to play and get along with other children. Most experts recommend that children learn by doing. In choosing care for your toddler, you'll want to
* Look for adults who are warm, caring, knowledgeable, and attentive. Do children sit on the provider's lap? Does the provider offer frequent praise and encouragement? Does the provider genuinely seem to love children this age?
* Look for a provider who is patient and skilled in helping children learn self-control and self-discipline. Guidance and discipline should be applied in a positive way that helps the child. Rules should be clear and fairly enforced. Providers who use positive ways of disciplining children generally provide a higher quality of care.
* Look for a caregiver who has experience caring for toddlers. Caregivers who provide quality care must understand children's needs and have the energy for lots of inventive activities.
* Look for a caregiver who has special training for working with young children, and specifically with children under the age of 3.
* Choose a program or provider who offers safe challenges and a variety of activities. Your toddler needs opportunities to test new skills and explore new things. Look for a range of activities, from group play to individual play, from games to music, from quiet activities to noisy ones.
* Look for a healthy, safe, and child-friendly environment. Does the caregiver respond right away when a toddler cries, is upset, or is angry? Does the provider always keep an eye on the children? Is the space organized so that toddlers know where things can be found and can reach what they need? Are there small places where children can get away from the group sometimes, where they can have quiet time by themselves?
* Choose a place where parents feel welcome to drop in while the child is in care. And look for providers who openly share information with parents.
* Look at the number of children per adult in the center, home, or program. Again, most experts feel that one family child care provider should care for no more than six children, and no more than two of those children should be under the age of 2. In centers, the recommended child:staff ratio for toddlers is 5:1 and should not be more than 6:1.
* Look at the overall size of the group. Even when there is more than one adult caregiver, experts recommend that there should be no more than nine children in a group of toddlers. If toddlers are mixed in with preschoolers, the group should be no larger than 10 children. If the group is mixed-age, find out how the caregiver makes sure the needs of the toddlers are met.
Preschoolers (3 to 5 years) There are many different types of educational programs for preschoolers. Some are highly structured and some are more informal. It has not yet been proven that any one type of program is more effective than others. What matters is that you choose a program that suits your child's needs and temperament.
When choosing a preschool program for your child,
* Ask yourself if the school or program is a good fit for your child. For example, if your child has trouble dealing with other children, he may not thrive in a large classroom. If he can't yet control his hands well enough to draw pictures, he may not do well in a preschool that expects him to learn to write.
* Look for a program that offers many different opportunities for your child to learn. Are there books, blocks, art supplies, and a variety of toys and materials available to children? Do teachers read to the children every day? Does the program provide opportunities for singing, dance, and drama?
* Look at the number of children per adult in the center, school, or program. The recommended child:staff ratio for preschoolers is 8:1 and should not be more than 10:1.
* Keep in mind that, in general, children do better in small groups. So no matter how many adults are on hand, the total number of children who are grouped together for care is important. For 3-to-5-year-olds, groups of 12 to 18 children are recommended -- the quality of care goes up as the group gets smaller; quality begins to deteriorate when preschool groups have 20 children or more.
* Are the teachers nurturing and experienced with children this age? Do they talk to the children and listen to them? Do they help the children communicate with one another, resolve conflicts, and develop social skills?
* Do the teachers use positive discipline? Teachers, like caregivers, must be patient and skilled in helping children learn self-control and self-discipline. Guidance and discipline should be applied in a positive way that helps the child. Rules should be clear and fairly enforced. Teachers who use positive ways of disciplining children generally provide a higher quality of care.
* Is there a lot of opportunity for physical exercise and play? Preschoolers need plenty of time and space to play, run, and explore.
* Choose a program or school where parents feel welcome to drop in and visit. And look for teachers who openly share information with parents and who welcome parent suggestions.
* Look for a healthy, safe, and child-friendly environment. Do teachers respond right away when a child cries, is upset, or is angry? Do they always keep an eye on the children? Is the space organized so that children know where things can be found and can reach what they need? Do teachers follow safety precautions when children are baking cookies or playing outdoors?
Finally, keep in mind the importance of continuity of care when choosing a care arrangement for your child. Children do better when they can continue to be with a caregiver they trust over a period of time. A family child care or in-home provider who only plans to be a caregiver for a short time, or a center or program with unusually high staff turnover, can have a negative effect on the quality of care. It's important for your baby, toddler, or preschooler to stay with the same people as long as the arrangement seems right.
Written with the help of Joan Costley, M.Ed. and doctoral candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ms. Costley has been working in the field of child development, early care, and education for 40 years as a teacher, researcher, program director, consultant, and author.