By WMM Contributor: Melissa Feldmeyer
The part of motherhood I was looking LEAST forward to was not the delivery or the sleepless nights, but the idea of having to find child care for my baby. The search, the guilty feelings about leaving my baby, and the cost (oh, the cost…..)
I knew I would be a working mom before I ever got pregnant, both by choice and necessity. But it was unchartered territory for me- my own mom had stayed home with us until we were older and most of my friends who had already had children either stopped working or had a family member or two that could watch their children while they worked. I knew as neither of those were options for me and I would need to find someone outside of my family to trust with my baby.
Sending your child to day care is one of those mothering topics that can cause judgement. This is one of the only areas I personally have ever felt “mom shamed”. It use to sting a little, because who wants how much they love and care about their child to be compared or measured? But I’ve adapted the attitude over time that unless someone would like to pay all my bills and provide health insurance for my family - their opinion on what I am doing to support my family or how I do it is irrelevant. I even made that offer to one lady shortly after my 2nd maternity leave who commented “Wow… your baby must REALLY miss you during the day.” She didn’t take me up on it (darn!). I know I made the best decision for my family and that I put a lot of care, time and effort into making sure I’m sending my kids to a safe environment with people who care for them and about them.
Similar to all parenting decisions, there is not a one size fits all answer to the perfect child care provider. It’s all about looking around and finding the best fit based on which factors are most important to you. What might be an amazing experience for one family might not work out for another. I am going to focus specifically on factors to consider when looking for a day care center. I know there are so many other choices with family/home based care, nannies and au pairs that families are very happy with- but I can only speak to my own experience, and day care centers are what I have experience with.
The best analogy I can use is the story of the 3 Bears. You know it. You’re a mom. One center might be too big, one might be too small, one too expensive, one too far away, but one day you’ll find your “just right” and it will all be worth it. We did find the right fit- it wasn’t the first center we attended incidentally- our family grew, jobs changed, needs changed- so what we needed in child care changed. But we’ve been at our current child care center for 5 years now and we know it’s the right place for us.
If you are like me- knowing where to start is always the hardest part- so I’ve put together some the resources I used and questions I asked during my day care center search.
WHEN (to start looking)
I had heard tales of waitlists, so I started looking for centers when I was about 6 months pregnant. You can put in applications with the name “Baby (Whatever your last name is) and an approximate start date. If the center has a 6 month wait list and you have a 2 month maternity leave, starting your search at least 4 months before they are born is good timing. Especially in cities like Milwaukee where there aren’t a ton of centers- child care is in high demand!
WHAT (are you looking for)
What are the must haves when looking for a quality center for your child? As with most questions in my life…. I started with Google.
I found that The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families has a link to YoungStar where you can search regulated providers in the State of Wisconsin. You can search by both family providers and group day care centers. They rank from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) stars.
When you click on a center, you can find any regulation violations they’ve had in the past- as the state does check in on licensed centers throughout the year. Many are minor issues- like a child was missing physician contact information or cots were less than 2 feet apart during nap time, but more serious issues are also listed as well if they have occurred- along with the center’s response on how they will correct any issue. This gave me confidence about transparency and that there are checks and balances in place to ensure even the smallest details of our child’s safety in day care centers are being monitored. If anything shows us that is a reoccurring or issue that causes you concern- keep scrolling down to a different center. I still pop on there from time to time to check in on the center my daughter is at, to be honest!
I took a look at Google and Facebook reviews, but took them with a grain of salt. Because most of the time you’re going to get the extreme opinions here- those people who LOVE it and those who HATE and not much of the in between. Unless I saw a pattern of similar type of complaints or any concerning child safety, I didn’t discount a center simply because of a couple negative online reviews.
While there are some qualities that are based on your preference, personality or parenting style- there are some key criteria that you should always be looking for or asking questions of in any day care center that you are considering. Some of these you can research before you ever ask for a tour (like the YoungStar link above) - others you might have to observe or ask about as you tour in person. I always asked for a full tour when looking at a center- I wanted to see all the rooms, even the bathrooms and the playground. Just because your child is a baby now- they won’t always be and seeing both the environment and teacher/child interactions at all age levels is important in developing an overall feel for the way the center operates.
- Licensed Facility- This should be one of the first questions to ask/look up. If they are not a licensed facility, they are not being regulated by the state to ensure they are in compliance with early childhood education, health and safety laws. This can mean serious concerns can go unchecked and uncorrected. You can find a list of Wisconsin licensed facilities here.
- Student to Teacher Ratio- There are legal guidelines that must be followed in regards to how many students can be in the classroom per teacher depending on age as well as maximum number of students of a certain age that can be in a classroom. For instance- in a birth to 2 year old room, there is a 1 teacher per 4 student ratio, with a maximum of 8 students in the classroom. Ask what the ratio is for the center you are considering- they can have lower ratios of students to teachers, but not higher than the regulation Take a peek provider/child ratio here and keep it in mind as you tour and look at the various classrooms to make sure this is consistent across the center.
- Teacher Training & Education- As with many of the other regulations the state has for ensuring proper care- there are standards for the minimum education and training child care provider must have. You can find out Wisconsin’s requirements here. Many centers require more than the minimum to be considered for employment- so ask what their teacher education and training requirements are.
- Security, Safety & Overall Environment- Centers should have some system in place to both prevent a stranger from walking through the doors from off the street AND to prevent someone from getting out who shouldn’t. You know… like a sneaky kid trying to fly the coop. This could be a key code system, a person monitoring a buzzer, keycards, etc. Take a look as you go on your tour to make sure that entrances and exits are secured in some way, as well as in the classroom to make sure that there are proper gates and barriers in place to prevent an overcurious child from getting into (or out of) something they shouldn’t. Note things like temperature- do the rooms seem warm/cool enough, does it look like the facility is clean and well maintained (peek in those bathrooms too)? Don’t forget to look on the playground too, as kids will spend time outside every day (weather dependent of course). When you are on the tour look at the classrooms and see what toys, art supplies, books, etc. are in the classroom. Do they seem age appropriate? Are there sufficient numbers of these items for the number of students in the room? If there is something along the tour that causes concern- bring it up.
- Meals- If your child is a baby, this might not apply for a bit- but eventually your child will eat solid foods- so find out if meals are provided for children or if you are expected to provide them. If they provide meals- ask for a menu. Check to make sure meals and snacks being provided are of good and balance nutritional value and if your child does have allergies- see if there will be substitutions available. You can find nutritional guidelines to look for here.
- Teacher Turnover- Low teacher turnover can be a good indicator that teachers are generally satisfied with their work environment. As with every job, we know the longer you are there- the better you know the people (in this situation- the very little people) and build relationships with them. You want to know the people you are leaving your child with- and want your child to have consistency for being with the same care givers, so this was an important area I was looking for. While turnover is natural in all jobs, a high teacher turnover rate can be an indication that there is something off with how the center is being run or teachers are being compensated or treated in comparison with other centers they could choose to be employed with. Ask how long the longest tenured teacher has been there, as well as the newest and the average length of employment. This is a common question parents ask- they should know the answer.
- Schedules and Lesson Plans- As you would have at home- day care centers should have consistent schedules that they follow each day as well as planned age appropriate activities with both indoor and outdoor time. All of the centers we toured had daily schedules posted in the classroom and either copies of the weekly planned activities available for families to take or had the weekly lesson plans posted in the classroom. Obviously in a tiny infant room there will be less structured activities than a 4 year old classroom- but there can still be goals for the week- like working on motor skills or what books they are going to read to the kids, etc.
- Communication- This is a big one for me and can make or break how you feel about your day care experience. Especially before your child is verbal- the only way you are going to know what went on in your child’s day is through the information the center and teachers are providing you. There are requirements for what daily information needs to be shared with you as a parent depending on your child’s age. When they ate, what they ate, when they had diaper changes and what those diapers contained. When they napped. Great centers will go the extra mile to make sure you are well informed about what your child did that day, their general mood, and of their overall developmental progress towards goals in both the short and long term. More centers are using apps like KidReport or Brightwheel so you can get all of this information in real time as well as pictures (which is a nice treat during the day!) Ask for a copy of their daily reporting sheet to see what you can expect to see on a regular basis. Ask if there are regular parent/teacher conferences and if parents can schedule calls or visits with the teacher or director to address concerns that might come up.
- Center Manual/Handbook- Centers should have a manual that explains both center polices for the good of both you and the center. It is a strong tool to start with a good understanding of what you can expect of the center and what the center expects of you as parents. This includes what you should bring/provide for your child, sick policies- when they will get sent home and when they can come back, holidays, signing in and out policies, how they handle disciplinary issues, changes in schedules, medication policies, payment information, forms you will need to fill out (oh… so many forms…..) etc. See if this is available online before you request a tour- or ask for it when you do. Being on the same page in terms of expectations is always a great start to any healthy relationship.
WHERE & HOW (much will it cost)
The short answer-it will probably cost all of your money. I wish I were joking. Full time day care is a big financial investment. I know moms that wanted to return to the work force after having their child, but decided to stay home mainly because it would cost more for child care than they were taking home every week. In our particular situation- I needed to stay employed full time because I carried the health insurance through my job- but if it had not been for that- I probably would have been in that same boat after my 2nd child because of how little I was bringing home after paying for childcare. I almost cried when I got my year end statement that first year of having 2 kids in day care. Of course it was worth every penny spent to make sure they were well cared for- but I could have put a down payment on a house for what I paid for day care. When I saw what things were like it terms of costs for child care in other developed countries, I DID cry (but don’t even get me started on that).
All centers structure their fees slightly differently- some sites you pay by the number of days and if they are full or half days, some are by the number of hours they will be there per day/week. Something I found frustrating was that there were very few sites that put their fees online (it’s sort of like job postings that don’t put the salary range on it- come on, let’s not waste anyone’s time!). As I mentioned above- cost can range quite a bit based on where you are living or looking- I found that for the most part, the further out of you went from the city of Milwaukee, the more expensive the care became. There seemed to be a correlation between average incomes of the neighborhoods and suburbs they are located in and the cost of the center. I did not find anything under $280 for ages infant-2 years for full time care and found as high as $450 for that same age group and time frame. That is a huge variance! There can me many reasons for there being such a large difference, including some of what we talked about above- size of the center/classrooms, demand for child care in the area, educational level of teachers (and therefore how much they are being compensated), if meals are provided, what sort of enrichment and educational tools or activities they offer.
That is why the “where” comes in. Most of us tend to look in the areas we live in, but if you notice the cost of centers is higher in that area, or there is less availability- you may want to consider finding care in the area you work in (if it is different than the neighborhood you live in). You can even look somewhere in between where you live and work. It may not always be the most convenient option, but sometimes logistics and money overrule convenience.
There are other things you can do to help reduce that sticker shock a bit besides selling off all of your valuables. If your employer or bank offers an FSA (flexible spending account) or Dependent Care FSA, you can put a part of your paycheck pre-tax aside to use to pay for childcare for any of your dependents under 13 years old. This can reduce your tax liability and can save you some money in the long run. Learn more here or talk to your workplace benefits department or your financial advisor for more information on if this might be a good fit for you.
If these numbers are just way out of reach- there can also be opportunities at certain household income levels to receive state assistance with the cost of day care. You can see more about eligibility requirements and how to apply here.
Remember that it will get less expensive as they get older- and then once they go to regular school the clouds will part and the light will shine down on your bank account once more.
It takes a lot of work to find the right day care center for your family- but it is worth every minute of the time you spend to have the peace of mind in knowing that you’re leaving your children in good hands. My daughters are 5 ½ (she’d be mad if I didn’t mention the ½) and 2 now- and I have seen so many benefits in their development and social skills that I attribute in part to them participating in a group day care. They are friendly with adults, get along well with other children, have very low separation anxiety issues. Their teachers were huge in helping our kids reach milestones like transitioning to solid foods, potty training, learning letters and numbers. And they would get just as excited as we were as parents when they started to walk or talk or learned a new skill. My older daughter, who is now in kindergarten, still runs up and hugs her day care teachers when we drop off her younger sister in the morning. They are not related by blood- but they have seen my children grow up from babies and know them as well as a relative could.
Happy trails, good wishes, break a leg, and all of that as you start on your child care search adventure (we’ll call it an adventure… it sounds more fund that way). Hopefully some of what I shared can cut down on the amount of internet scouring you’ll have to do and can give you a solid foundation to build your own checklist upon. Of course there may be things you are looking for that I didn’t even mention! Moms who have been there- what else did you look for that I didn’t talk about? Share your wisdom in the comments!