I never wanted to be a “daycare mom.” The mere concept conjured images in my mind of a harried woman in a red pantsuit shuttling a screaming child to a place where even the hospital-white walls are nervously sweating. While I hadn’t set a toe inside a daycare center, I was sure the rooms would be replete with drippy noses, apple juice, soiled diapers, and misery, misery, misery. Everything about the concept was repulsive, from the germs to the caregivers. It was impossible to believe a stranger could be an adequate substitute for, well, me. The astronomical cost of daycare was the least of my growing worries. And yet, several months into my pregnancy, my husband and I dutifully made our rounds to nearby daycare centers for tours.
Touring daycare centers
I always was acutely aware I would continue to work after I gave birth. On the one hand, I loved my job as a television news producer, and just as importantly, my family wouldn’t be able to stay afloat on my husband’s salary alone. Even during my pregnancy, I could measure my guilt at leaving Sophie in pounds — huge, rolling pounds of fatty, fleshy guilt… regret… panic. The feeling intensified with our first daycare visit, where we were greeted by, to my chagrin, a slight, bile-inducing smell and, eerily, hardly any children. While the caregiver seemed nice enough, we could barely understand her heavily-accented pitch. I was swollen with desperation at the prospect of being a daycare mom as we left.
Still, we pushed on. I felt more comfortable with the second daycare center we visited. This one was a kaleidoscope of kids, teachers, playgrounds, and cribs all in a row, one after the next after the next, a baby lineup. The owner was a small brunette who waxed on about Mother Goose sing-a-longs and visits from clowns and magicians. She also had a strict daily schedule for meals, nap time and outdoor play, and more importantly, seemed to care about the children, calling them by name and indulgently patting their heads.
There was another visit to a daycare center, then another. We revised our list of questions, and learned about state-licensing requirements for daycare operators, like caregiver-to-child ratios. If you’re curious, you can find your state licensing requirements here.
Tips for daycare tours
- Make appointments ahead of time – don’t just show up
- Bring a list of questions
- Plan ahead of time, as daycare wait lists may be long
- Writing down your daycare goals will help elucidate them
- Get feedback from others in your community
Our priorities when choosing a daycare center
We prioritized what was important to us; our baby’s safety and happiness were paramount, but we realized we wanted to find a center that went beyond that, and focused on structure and development too. For that reason, we decided to concentrate our search on larger operations where our child would be with others who were very close in age and development, and where she would have access to trained providers who followed a curriculum that placed a heavy emphasis on education. We also knew we wanted find a place close to home, and we sought feedback on social media from neighbors about the centers on our list. This was helpful, as personal stories from parents poured in; there were some very valid safety concerns at one of the facilities that help guide our decision. On the other hand, glowing feedback about another center validated our choice to sign up. Other factors, like extended hours, hands on learning opportunities, and outreach in the community with a local senior center also appealed to us.
Be prepared to pay daycare application fees
In the end, we joined the wait list at two daycare centers. That meant plunking down about $100 with each application, money we would never see again, and calling periodically to check on availability. Be forewarned: it can be competitive. We sent in our first application while I was in my second trimester, and months after Sophie was born, we were still waiting. It wasn’t until Sophie’s first birthday that she finally gained admission to a daycare center. It was official: I became a daycare mom.
Read my checklist on How to Choose the Right Daycare.