The only debate that riles up parents more than breast vs. bottle is the good old stay-at-home vs. working mom dispute. Although opinions run rampant, the fact is this: The most recent numbers from Pew Research Center show that only 29 percent of mothers don’t work outside the home. And 6 percent of those moms are only home because they’re unable to find a job, which means that more than 70 percent of Americans are leaving their children in someone else’s care for at least a portion of the workday. While the hours and caregivers may vary from full-time to part-time and nanny to au pair, the most common place for a baby to end up when mom heads to the office is a daycare center.
The bright side
Julie Taylor, a mom of two Jacksonville, Florida, wasn’t looking forward to returning to work after the birth of her first child, but she knew it was necessary for her family to pay the bills. Although friends and family kept floating around the ideas of in-home care and shared nannies, there was only one option she felt good about: a daycare center. “I worried that with one-on-one care I might not know what was going on. People can be deceiving, and a baby isn’t capable of telling you what happens during the day. But at a center, there are checks and balances, rules and regulations … systems in place that made me feel more confident walking away from my baby every morning,” she explains.
Daycare centers sometimes get a bad rap, but they aren’t terrible places. In fact, there are several positive aspects to leaving your child in a daycare center while you’re at work.
Socialization. Most daycares group the children according to age range, so your child will spend his days with peers who are on target for his growth and development. “There are great socialization benefits [to daycare],” says mom of three Katie Bugbee, senior managing editor at Care.com. At daycare, your little one will learn to interact with others, wait his turn, follow directions and more.
Education. Today’s daycares aren’t all about fun and games. Many centers hire workers trained in early childhood education, so the staff members aren’t there only to meet your child’s basic needs but also to teach him at every turn. “Many daycare centers run programs like music and art, so your child is getting enriched throughout the day,” notes Bugbee. As your child ages, he’ll be introduced to skills (counting, colors, shapes) and settings (storytime, naptime, snacktime) that will make the transition to kindergarten seamless.
Structure. Many children thrive on schedules and structure, and daycare is the perfect place to find that. Although the thought of a planned-to-a-T day might seem rigid to you, it can really be beneficial for children. They’ll have set times each day for meals, naps, free play and learning. Children quickly find their way in a daycare setting, and many look forward to attending “school” each day.
The right fit
Sometimes deciding on daycare isn’t the real challenge; it’s deciding which daycare. Childcare isn’t cheap, and cost can be a key factor in finding the right center for your family. “When I was looking for daycare for my son, I went into it wanting the top-rated center in my neighborhood,” Bugbee shares. “But ultimately, I only had the means for one lower on my list.”
If you fall in the same boat, don’t be discouraged: There are plenty of top-notch daycare centers out there, and just because your first pick is off the table doesn’t mean you won’t find one you love. It simply might take a little time. (If you’ll be putting your baby in daycare at the end of your maternity leave, begin the search while you’re still pregnant!) Bugbee shares her tips for your daycare search:
Spend a day at the school. See how the kids are comforted, how they are put down for naps, how tantrums are handled and how learning is facilitated through play.
Research real feedback. “I found a lot of comfort in my local BigTent community message board,” says Bugbee. This national forum has local boards with numerous reviews on daycares in different areas. Bugbee adds that you can type your ZIP code in here to read reviews of both daycare centers and family-run care centers.
Ask lots of questions. Find out how the staff communicates with parents, the center’s discipline policy, if they’ve been state certified, how they promote mental, physical and social growth, and more. (See sidebar on page 82 for a list of questions to cover.)
Trust your gut. “In the end, it’s not about whether the center has baby yoga or organic snacks,” reminds Bugbee. “What’s important is if the children are safe and well-loved.” If you have a good feeling about a center—or an unsettled one—trust your mama instincts. Although fellow parent input is invaluable, the same center won’t be “the one” for every family.
Although the first few days might be tricky —particularly if your wee one is a little older when he starts daycare—most families fall into a groove easily. Remember that leaving is often harder on mom than it is on baby, so don’t assume that just because you’re feeling blue, your baby is, too. Even if he’s crying when you walk out the door, his caregivers will quickly get him focused on something else, and he will be fine in no time.
“Make your exits quick,” Taylor recommends. “If you linger, it can make it harder on both of you. My rule is one kiss, one hug, a cheery ‘Bye!’ and I’m out the door.”
Communication is key for a successful daycare experience. These folks are caring for your most precious asset, and maybe in some cases even spending more time with him than you do. It’s OK to want to know exactly what’s going on—and, if you’re at a good center, they shouldn’t mind telling you.
“Befriend the director of the center and create a relationship,” suggests Bugbee. Also maintain a friendly relationship with the teachers and assistants in your child’s room, although they will likely change as your child ages. If you have questions or concerns, email or call right away, advises Bugbee.
You can also speak to staff members at pickup or drop-off, but keep in mind that these can be hectic times if several children are arriving or leaving at once, so you might be better able to have a conversation via phone, email or at a scheduled time during the day. (For example, the director might suggest you come during naptime, when your child’s caregiver can slip away for a moment and give you her undivided attention.)
Because your family and the staff members at your daycare center are all working together to keep your child happy and healthy, do your part to make the relationship a good one. Show up on time for pickup, adhere to center rules, and be respectful to staff and other parents. Your baby’s daycare is his home away from home, and he’ll learn, grow and thrive if he’s surrounded by love on all sides.