As a first-time mom, Pam Carr spent her pregnancy receiving lots of advice from friends, family, acquaintances—even virtual strangers. And they all agreed on one thing.
“Everyone told me when I found out I was pregnant to start looking for daycare then,” Carr recalls. Certainly, the Baltimore Sun special projects manager knew she was going to have to find daycare before returning to work full-time, but Carr, 35, had enough to do preparing for her son’s birth without worrying about something due months after it.
But in July 2002, two months after her son Timothy was born, Carr began to wish she’d paid a little more attention to those friendly suggestions. “Most of the daycare centers had waiting lists into the next year,” she recalls. Finding one that was suitable for Timothy and had availability suddenly seemed to be a long shot.
Fortunately for Carr, a childcare center she’d discovered through an Internet search met all of her criteria and was in the midst of opening an infant room. “They hadn’t even advertised yet, so I got really lucky,” admits Carr.
Lucky indeed. Daycare is one of the major struggles of new parents, right up there with deciding on a name and dealing with sleep deprivation. It’s anxiety-inducing enough to entrust your child to another’s care, but when you add in the difficult task of just finding someone able and willing to do the job, the whole ordeal becomes so daunting that it prompts some parents to just stay home for a year. But finding a good place for your child isn’t impossible; it just takes a lot of planning, patience, and persistence.
First, the good news: There is ample care available for older children, says Linda Heisner, executive director of the Maryland Child Care Administration. “In Maryland today we have probably more childcare than we’ve ever had,” she says. Since mid-2001 the number of childcare “slots” has grown from 203,000 to 213,000.
But the picture gets less rosy if you’re looking for daycare for your baby. Technically, it’s legal to place children in daycare after they’re six weeks old, but finding someone to take them is another matter. Despite a rise in the number of full-day infant care centers, which jumped from 369 in 1998 to 513 in 2002, infant care is still extremely hard to come by.
In any case, every expert recommends to start looking early. For infant care, start to search a year in advance, says Sherry Houck, director of Friday’s Child, an early learning center in Canton. “Only so many centers accept infants and most places are only licensed for six or nine infants,” Houck explains. “If you have a little older toddler, start looking six months in advance.” Even if it’s too early to predict vacancies, you can at least snare a coveted spot on a waiting list, says Leslee Bright, a LOCATE Childcare Corporate Service Coordinator with Maryland Committee for Children, a nonprofit that maintains a database of licensed childcare providers for the state and provides referrals for parents.
Daycare breaks down into two main categories: family care (where one provider looks after a small group of children, usually in his or her home) and centers (where larger groups of children are cared for by more than one caretaker). Deciding between the two depends on the family’s unique circumstances, says Bright. Some parents prefer the homey atmosphere, continuity of care, and smaller group size of family childcare homes. The downside: If the provider gets sick or goes on vacation, parents have to find alternate care.
Childcare centers, on the other hand, rely on more than one caregiver and, especially in the case of early-learning centers, may offer a more structured curriculum. They also have higher turnover, which means your child may be in the hands of several people, including those who do not have children of their own. Bigger groups, too, may mean more germs to swap and less individualized attention.
Cost is another factor: According to Maryland Committee for Children, in 2002 weekly childcare center costs averaged between $109 and $189, depending on the child’s age. Weekly family childcare averages ranged from $97 to $129.
Unfortunately for those seeking family-style care, the number of family-care homes has plummeted from its peak of 12,090 in 1998 to 10,419 in 2002 and will continue to fall, according to Maryland Committee for Children. While it’s hard to pinpoint what’s causing the decline, says the Maryland Childcare Administration’s Heisner, it is true that childcare doesn’t pay very well: The average family-care provider earns less than $20,000 a year, and many providers stop as soon as their own children are old enough for school.
Whichever type of care you choose, keep an open mind as you begin your search. For Ellicott City resident Amy Billups, for example, family childcare wasn’t a serious option at first. “I really had thought that I would rather have a center,” says Billups, who started looking one year before she needed care. But after putting her name on a waiting list at her first choice of centers, Billups, 28, and husband David decided to check out family care. They were soon sold on a family-care provider for their son Nicholas. Billups likes the fact that Nicholas is the only baby in the provider’s group, which means he gets ample attention. “I also like the idea of there being one person who watches him, so he won’t see strange faces over and over again,” she says.
Start your search by narrowing the field with phone calls to ask some basic questions, like hours, availability, and price. Next, make an appointment for an after-hours interview where you can ask more detailed questions without distractions. After that, it’s time for phone calls to parents—with children currently in care and those who once had children in care—and visits during operating hours. Some basics for your visits:
• Look at the provider’s license, which must be posted. It will tell you how many children the provider can care for and offer other information.
• Get a copy of the contract. It will give you important information on the provider’s policies, including sick and vacation days and parental requirements.
• Make sure the provider has values that are compatible with your own, says Linda Novotny, owner of Nature’s Playground, a family childcare operation in Glenarm. “If this is not an environment that is similar or compatible to their home, I recommend to parents that they look elsewhere,” she says. “Children do best in an environment that is like being home with mom.” If you’re not a big fan of “time-outs,” for instance, don’t choose a place where that’s the main form of discipline.
• Know the regulations. Check out the state’s Childcare Administration Web site (www.dhr.sailorsite.net/cca), which posts regulations for family and center-based care, advises Nancy Anderson, owner of First Step family childcare in Perry Hall and president of the Baltimore County Family Childcare Association.
• Look for cleanliness and friendliness, and whether the kids are having fun and are able to play inside and outside, says Ann Ferguson, director of The Kid’s Place, a childcare center in Ellicott City.
So what if you’ve dutifully made your phone calls and visits, asked the most insightful of questions and weeded out the worst, but still aren’t sure which provider is best qualified? Making that determination may be getting easier thanks to a new credentialing program initiated by the state. The voluntary program, which launched in July 2001 and has credentialed 1,500 providers so far, offers six levels of credentials to those meeting certain training and education criteria. Not only do credentials tell you something about the provider, but the program overall is aimed at improving professionalism and quality in the industry, says Heisner. That’s good news for parents in search of better care. And if you’re likely to be looking for infant care in the future, there’s more good news: The number of children under four is projected to decrease between now and 2007, at the same time that the number of full-day infant centers is projected to rise, which means more slots for your tots.
Once you find a place, expect some separation anxiety—and not just from your child. It’s not fun to give your child over to another person—or to see them bond during the time they have away from you. “My mommies are sometimes surprised that their babies call my name long before they say ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada,’” says Notovny, of Nature’s Playground. “It has nothing to do with their child not loving them more; it’s just that they hear my name so often during the day.”
But given the social and economic realities of today, daycare is often the best choice a parent can make—if not an outright necessity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 53 percent of all children under the age of 12 have been in daycare at some point in their lives; the average age to begin it is 6 months.
Is daycare harmful to kids? According to an ongoing early child care study by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, children with a history of quality center care display better language and short-term memory skills than those who spend their time in other types of care, all other things being equal. But the study also found that children with a history of center care had a higher risk of behavior problems, such as aggression and defiance, in the first 54 months of life. Another worrisome finding: longer hours in non-maternal care in the first three years of life result in a somewhat lesser sensitivity to the child on the part of the mother. But if you’re bundling your little one off to care, take heart: NICHD says the impact of the child’s family life is far greater than the impact of his or her daycare arrangement, which means that it’s what you do in your hours with Baby that matters most.
Clearly, though, finding quality childcare is important. That means far more than just changing dirty diapers or keeping an adventuresome 3-year-old from diving head-first off the jungle gym. Parents today want to ensure their kids’ brains are being nourished during their hours away from home. And a sampling by Maryland kindergarten teachers shows a clear difference in learning readiness depending on where children spend their first five years, says Heisner. “Children who come from quality pre-school environments tend to come to kindergarten more ready to learn,” she says. Of course, “quality” environments come in many shapes and sizes—including being at home with Mom, Dad, or another relative.
It all comes down to what best meets the needs and personalities of the individual child and family. For Pam Carr, this has meant daycare, and knowing that Timothy is in good hands during the day is a big relief. “After meeting his daycare mom, I was really, really happy,” says Carr. “When I drop him off in the morning, he can’t wait to get out of the car seat. That’s a good sign.”