Find the right daycare

Knowing what to ask, where to look makes the task less stressful


Monica Tapia


Ten tips Several months ago, Luz Flores found herself looking for a daycare center for her daughter, Emily, 3. It took four months of research and visits to several licensed facilities, but now Flores is happy and so is Emily. 

"The first weekend she didn’t go to school. She was telling me, ‘Mommy, I want to go back to school,’ " Flores says. "And she hasn’t cried once since she’s been there."

"It’s hard to leave your child in a daycare center for the first time," says Carlos Ramirez of Action for Children, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that helps families find daycare. But says Ramirez, if you do your homework, you will feel more confident about your choice.

In Illinois, there are nearly 14,000 licensed childcare facilities serving about 275,000 children, according to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Among the statewide facilities, 3,000 are daycare centers and 2,000 are located in the six-county Chicago area.

The key is to use your judgment, says Gillian McNamee, a professor and director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for those studying child development. "Ask yourself: ‘Will my child be happy here?’ ‘Can I trust my child here?’ [and] ‘What is life like here?’ " McNamee says. "The answer to direct questions will help, but read in between the lines." 

Here are a few tips to help you with your search.

1. Know your options. There are various terms and different criteria parents need to understand when it comes to choosing the right daycare option. Do you want a daycare center, a relative to care for your child, a nanny or a daycare home? Are you looking for a licensed facility, and is it important that it be accredited? (For a better understanding of the terms, see the glossary at left.) Once you understand what is available, you will know better what will work for you and your child.

2. Start early. Begin searching six months in advance. Bring your child with you so you can observe how your child reacts to the caregiver and vice versa. Tom Layman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children, says caregivers should speak to children properly. "Listen if the teachers are using language, real conversations with children, and not just directing them," says Layman, who heads the nonprofit organization dedicated to training professionals who work with young kids. Ask about the ratio of staff to children. The state requires one adult for every four children between the ages of 6 weeks to 14 months and one staffer for every five children between the ages of 15 to 23 months. For children age 2, it’s one staffer for every eight children and one for every 10 children age 3.

3. Know the staff. Talk to the center’s director. Ask to be introduced to the staff. How does the director treat the staff? Do they get along? Do they seem to communicate well? "You have to get a feel for who the people are and get a good sense of community in the daycare center," McNamee says. "Getting good vibes about the place and [feeling] comfortable with how your child will respond to it will help out."

What is the background of the staff? How long have staffers been working with children? The state requires caregivers be at least age 19 and have at least two years of college with a background in early childhood education. Also, there should be someone there at all times who is certified in child cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, as well as someone familiar with the Heimlich maneuver used when a child is choking.

4. Look for consistent care. Ramirez says longevity of staff is the key to good childcare. "Children are used to routine, so having a big turnover has an effect on the child’s development. You’ll notice the difference if there is a consistency in staff," Ramirez says. All you can do is ask. A center does not have to report to the state when employees leave. But ask the staff, Ramirez suggests.

5. Review the policies. Find out all the daycare center’s policies. Does it have an established, enforced and detailed policy on ill children? Sick children should stay home to prevent spreading illnesses. The center also should have medical reports showing that each child is up-to-date with immunizations. 

Food should never be used as a reward or a punishment. And while children can live off Cheetos and ice cream, a daycare center’s snacks and meals should be nutritious. Review the meals and snacks to make sure they are healthy. According to state officials, menus should be planned out a week in advance, available for review and posted in the center.

Also, ask for a copy of the guidance and discipline policy. It should prohibit the use of profane language, threatening as well as physical and emotional abuse. 

6. Make sure parents are welcome. "Every parent should drop in unexpectedly from time to time," Layman says. "And the center should welcome the parent, not leave them at the door."

How are the children interacting? Do they seem happy? Do they seem comfortable and playful? "It’s important for children to be active because young children learn by active engagement with their environment," Layman says.

"I was watching my daughter from the observing room while a teacher was taking notes," Flores says. "It’s good to see how your child will react with the other kids and the teacher while you’re not there."

7. Safety check. Look for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and make sure the center is child proof. Outlets and wires should be covered, dangerous items should be stored and locked. The floor should be free of any small toys to prevent choking. "Pure observing is what’s really important," Ramirez says.

8. Give it the white glove test. Staff should always wash their hands after changing diapers or coming out of the restroom. Children’s hands should also be washed after playing outside and before eating. The diaper station should be sanitized after every use. Crib sheets should be washed regularly. Flores says she visited many extremely dirty places. "At one daycare center, the director took me into his office and his floor was filthy," she says. "I don’t know how they thought they’d win me over with dirty floors." At the same time, no major cleaning should take place while the children are present.

9. The schedule vs. the space. McNamee says a daycare center should have a list of activities available for your review. Children should be doing productive activities that teach and engage them, not watching television. "Facilities should offer more than just babysitting services, but also development curricula that stimulate cognitive, physical, academic and socialization development of children that are being cared for," says Diane Jackson, deputy director of communications for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services.

Children need space to crawl, play, run and sleep, so observe the center’s space. You don’t need a tape measure to calculate the square footage, but the state requires a minimum of 35 square feet of activity space per child.

10. Check the center’s background. Ramirez recommends families in Cook County call Action for Children at (773) 687-4000 for referrals. Call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at (877) 746-0829 to check if any complaints have been filed against the center and find out whether a center’s license is current. "DCFS’ role is to provide oversight regarding compliance, licensing and monitoring of childcare facilities," Jackson says.



Monica Tapia is the mother of Miliani, 2½, a graduate of the Columbia College journalism program and a Chicago Parent intern.

•  Accredited daycare. A voluntary system run by the National Association for Education of Young Children, which mandates higher standards than licensing. There are 633 accredited sites in Illinois. Find them at

•  Family daycare. Relatives who care for family members. There are no state requirements or standards.

•  Group daycare. A facility monitored by the Department of Children and Family Services. The caregivers must be at least 21 and should care for no more than 16 children under the age of 12.

•  Licensed daycare. The facility is required to meet state standards and is inspected annually by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services licensing staff. Licenses are intended to help ensure a daycare facility is safe and meeting basic standards. But Chicago Parent posed many questions about whether the state’s licensing staff is able to handle the current workload of inspections, and we didn’t receive clear answers. For details, see page 38.

•  License-exempt childcare. It is surprising how many facilities are exempt, which means these independent facilities are not monitored by the state unless charges of abuse or neglect surface. They include: preschools connected with elementary schools or on park district or church-owned property; facilities that care for children while parents are on the premises, such as the childcare at the YMCA or at a religious service. Also, summer and day camps are exempt. All still have to meet local safety and fire codes.

• Nanny care. An agency licensed by the Department of Labor to place individuals as nannies. Families call an agency and candidates are sent out for interviews.

• Preschools. Those not connected with a school are licensed by the Department of Children and Family Services. They cater to children ages 3 and up and are usually open only half a day.


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