When Dr. Anita Chandra met her now-regular babysitter nine years ago, her first child was 3 months old. Interested in finding someone with similar family and religious values, Chandra says she was happy when the sitter brought her own daughter to the interview. "This is a family relationship," she says. "And I felt like we were really interviewing family background, not just an individual."
Chandra, who now has four children, says her family "struck gold" with their sitter, but sometimes it's not that easy for new parents. Sixty-two percent of Illinois families with children 5 and under are using some type of regular child care and about 40 percent of them are there more than 30 hours per week. Yet selecting the right option can be daunting.
Navigating the initial interview is an important step to assuring your baby is in a child care arrangement that's comfortable for parents, too.
Start by interviewing or visiting at least three of each of the child care options you are considering, whether this includes day cares, in-home facilities or nannies, says Kanella Maniatis, a child care consultant for the Illinois Action for Children, a nonprofit organization that advocates for quality child care and early education.
When interviewing a potential nanny, Chandra, who is a pediatrician with Northwestern Memorial Physician's Group and on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, suggests starting with some questions about the person's experience. Ask about activities that they've done with children in the past, even their own, she says. Since the new nanny will be filling in when you can't be there, Chandra suggests asking, "Will they be doing the things you would do?"
Safety is another key issue to bring up during this first interview, Chandra says. She suggests parents ask about knowledge of infant care and, specifically, infant CPR training. You may also want to check in on the potential nanny's feelings about sick children or allergies. "You want to make sure they feel comfortable administering medication and following your directions," she says.
Other questions that are important to ask are whether or not he or she feels comfortable cooking, doing laundry or driving. You may also want to touch base on the provider's personal health to make sure sick days will be minimal and that communicable diseases won't spread around the house. Chandra suggests watching out for sitters who are uncomfortable with parents being in the house or someone who is too pushy, taking on an "I know best" attitude. "That's going to set up for an uncomfortable environment," she says.
Another option for new parents to consider is group child care outside of the home, like a day care center. For these types of programs, start by interviewing the director of the center, as well as the teacher or assistant who will be in the room with your child, says Maniatis.
Like choosing a nanny, it's helpful to begin by asking each of these people about their experiences in the field. Maniatis' organization provides a list of suggested questions for new parents to ask, including topics like educational background, specialized child care training, CPR and First Aid training and amount of time spent with this center in particular.
Also, make sure that the center is licensed by the state and, if possible, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "This is definitely an indicator of quality," Maniatis says.
After establishing these basics, Maniatis tells parents to ask about the program itself, such as the fees, days off (for backup purposes), policies and procedures (like sick children, unannounced visits, end of the day pick-up) and curriculum.
Ask specifically about babies, as many centers don't accept children before they are 2 and assure that they don't just let infants sleep all day. Instead, staff should actively engage them in activities that help with development, like vision and interaction. "Infants take more attention and time," Maniatis says.
When approaching new centers, Maniatis tells parents to split their needs into two lists-an A-list, or things that they cannot negotiate on, and a B-list, or things that would be a bonus. That way, parents only consider centers that comply with the A-list and use the B-list to decide between two great programs. For instance, an A-list item may be a minimum number of years of experience, while a B-list item may be knowledge of a second language. Maniatis also says to ask questions about the center's safety and to take time to observe it for yourself. "Get on the level of the children where they will experience the environment," she says.
Maniatis cautions against a few red flags that may come up during interviews and the first few weeks your baby is at a new facility. If children are getting hurt often or if the center doesn't allow parents to drop in during the day, proceed with caution.
For a complete list of suggested questions or to speak with a child care specialist, contact Illinois Action for Children at (312) 823-1100 or ask your pediatrician. Oftentimes, though, you know best what will work for your baby. "We definitely tell them to go number one with their gut feeling," Maniatis says. "If something doesn't feel good, it's probably not."
Laura Schocker is a Chicago Parent intern.