Day care is one of the most emotionally and politically charged issues in parenting. While many people feel that a parent should stay home with the children, economics, personal preference, and family situations often mean that mother and father both work during the day. Most working parents take their children to day care for part or all of the day.
Research has shown that day care, in and of itself, is not harmful to children. Under certain conditions, it can often be helpful. Learning, being around other children, and socializing with adults other than their parents can improve intellectual and social skills. The Abecedarian Project, for instance, studied the effects of highly structured day care on children of very-low-income families; the study found that high-quality day care indeed enhanced those children's grasp of the ABCs and mathematical skills and gave them better success in adulthood as well.
What to Look For
The key word when it comes to day care is quality. Looking for a good day care facility is not the same as looking for a babysitter or a school. A young child needs safety, love, affection, support, and stimulation. In this case, safety means that there are enough teachers that no children are unsupervised and that the teachers pay close attention to all the children.
A safe day care facility must also be clean. This is important to help fight infections and contagious illnesses. It's very difficult to keep both children and a room full of them and their things clean, but you should get the impression that the center is doing all it can.
Make sure, too, that the facility you choose doesn't sit the children down in front of the television every day. There are a number of reasons that television and movies are a problem at day care. First, a one-year-old doesn't benefit the way an older child might from watching even educational children's programming. Second, when one-year-old children are in front of a television screen, no one is interacting with them, which leaves them feeling bored and even scared because in essence they are alone.
Third, when young children are in front of the television, especially in a group, they can get rowdy and out of control because the television doesn't really hold their interest enough; at the same time, the noise and constantly changing picture is agitating to them. Finally, you're not paying the television to babysit your child.
Next, ask yourself whether the caregivers seem genuinely loving, kind, and concerned about the children. At this age, intellectual rigor and intensity is less important than warm and friendly faces, as well as nurturing and support.
Different Types of Facilities
Some day care centers are home-based, while others are independently owned. Still others are franchises of large corporations. Each of these types of centers has its pros and cons, although studies have shown that home-based day care — where one or two adults care for a small number of children, some of which are often their own — is the least likely to help a child develop social and learning skills.
If you are worried about the potentially negative consequences of day care, discuss these with your caregiver and do research about how to minimize them. The most commonly reported negative impact of day care comes from the number of hours a child spends there and a rise in aggressive tendencies. It seems as if children who spend more than 39 hours a week in day care behave more aggressively. It is unclear, based on the research, if this is truly a consequence of day-care quality or a reflection of other issues, such as a lack of time with parents.
It does seem safe to say that high-quality day care is a positive influence, whereas poor-quality day care that takes precedence over time spent with the family does not help a child develop. And the price of day care isn't always a sign of quality. In fact, Head Start programs, which are often subsidized, have been shown to benefit children, especially those from low-income families.
Visit a day care center with your child and try to spend a few hours there, watching the routine, and the way the children are cared for. Do the children who are there seem happy, stimulated, and interested in their surroundings? Do the teachers follow a routine that seems logical? Are there comfortable areas for playing and sleeping? The following list of questions includes day-to-day information you'll need, as well as some points of discussion for you and the day care director and teacher. You can photocopy the list and bring it with you as you visit facilities.
Questions to Ask a Day Care Provider
What is your policy about late arrivals and pickups?
How are meals handled?
How is diapering handled?
What are the naptimes? How are children put to sleep?
How many children are in a class?
What is the policy about illness?
How do you teach children good behavior?
How do you handle children who haven't learned how to share?
What are your expectations of children at this age?
What is the day's schedule?
What are the day's activities?
How do you communicate with parents?
What do you feel you offer to the children?
What do you expect from parents?
Be sure to ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Listen closely to their feedback, as other parents are a large part of what turns a day-care center into a community.
Communicating with the Caregiver
In an ideal situation, your child will become close to her caregiver, who will love her and get to know her because of the time they spend together. It behooves you to develop a close relationship with your child's caregiver so that he feels comfortable talking to you about what he's noticed about your child's moods, learning, development, and adjustment.
To establish a good relationship with your child's caregiver, be sure you are warm and friendly in the morning. Tell her how your child's evening and early morning went and if there's anything she needs to be aware of (if your child is tired, for example, or if she was excited about coming to day care that day). Say goodbye to your child warmly and quickly, as prolonged goodbyes are difficult for everyone.
At the end of the day, ask your child's caregiver how the day was. Listen to her and thank her for the information so that she is aware of your interest in your child's daily experience and that she knows you value the feedback she provides you.
If you can tell, or if your child tells you, that she loves her caregiver and wishes she lived with her, she's not saying she doesn't love you. No one will ever replace a mother or father in a child's eyes, but the ability to love freely and happily is a sign of security.
Some day-care centers send children home with written descriptions of the day, such as what they ate, how their mood was, and whether they slept. This is very helpful, as it will give you information for your child's evening, as well as something to talk about with her. “So, you ate a banana today? Was it good?” Although your child most likely cannot answer, his caregivers will have talked to him about this, too, and he will appreciate the continuity from day care to home.
For many parents, there is a “payback” time when kids display anger or seem annoyed that the parent is picking them up. It is a display of some resentment for being left while you had “fun” at work. Tell your child how happy you are to see him, but don't expect him to “discuss” his day or show a lot of enthusiasm when you first pick him up. Transitions are difficult for a young child. After a few calm minutes or a half-hour, he'll be comfortable again.
Remember that many people who choose to work with small children are comfortable with and enjoy the company of small children. It's important that they know you value the intimate way they know your children. After all, they are doing the hard and messy work of cleaning and feeding your child.