An Overview of Daycare

Pre school teacher playing with babies

FatCamera / Getty Images 

Daycare, as its name so obviously suggests, is a childcare option that allows parents to drop off their children during the day for care, supervision, and learning. If you're exploring daycare, you likely already know that. What you may not know, though, is just how many varieties of daycares there can be.

Daycare centers specialize in the care of infants through pre-schoolers. Some daycare facilities also offer before- and after-school care for school-age children.

Some daycares have formal schedules, similar to a preschool when children become toddler age. Many daycare centers are national or regional chains, and some are privately owned. Daycares may also be in-home, run by a single person.

Once you have made the decision to send your child to daycare, it is important to find a daycare center (be it traditional or in-home) that aligns with the needs of your family.

Your family's needs might be practical, philosophical, or anything in between. The following questions can get you started.


Is There Space Available?

Though you may end up deciding that a particular daycare isn't the best fit for you overall, this is an important first question, as pursuing a center further won't be necessary if it is at capacity. If space is not available, you might ask about a waiting list, if a delay works for your needs.

What Are the Operating Hours? 

Typical hours in most traditional daycares are approximately 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m, but the hours vary by facility. When choosing a daycare, look at how long you'll need from the time you leave work to arrive at the center.

It is also a good idea to ask what happens if you are late: How is care provided for your child? Are there extra fees? If you do not work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., it is important to find a childcare situation suitable for your hours.

This might involve choosing a center that can accommodate your schedule, or "piecing together" care. For example, perhaps you hire a babysitter to pick up your child from the center once it closes and provide care until you are able to return home.

What Is the Cost?

Daycare costs vary by location, and it is important to know exactly what you'll be paying for upfront. Some centers offer discounted rates for certain employers, or if you enroll more than one child, so it is worthwhile to ask. Also, ask about any additional fees you might have to pay, such as money for new supplies.

When Is the Daycare Closed? 

Some facilities close for all key holidays; others offer care arrangements, but often at an additional charge. A few centers may close during summer months or for longer periods such as during winter or holiday breaks. Make sure they'll be open when you need care unless you have other options you can rely on during those times. 

Do They Offer Part-time or Flexible Care? 

If you are a parent with a part-time job or other childcare help, you may only need part-time hours (or a few full days a week) at a daycare. If your child is older and you need extra care after school, some centers have after-school hours and offer transportation to and from school (or at least to serve as a pick-up/drop-off location for school-provided bus service).

Quality and Approach

What Are the Qualifications of the Staff?

Start your search by looking online to find daycares in your area. Check out if the daycare has references, positive reviews, and the necessary licenses. Almost all home daycares are required to meet state licensing regulations for health and safety to operate. 

Licensees have to comply with current laws relating to the health, welfare, and safety of children cared for. Ideally, the daycare center will be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). 

For information regarding chid care licensing agencies and program regulations in all 50 states and four U.S. territories, visit the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance's State and Territory Licensing Agencies and Regulations​ information page.

Be sure to ask the daycares you are interested in about the qualifications of the daycare providers and teachers.

A study conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey found that three- and four-year-olds have increased social, emotional, and cognitive development when their teachers have four-year degrees and are specialized in early childhood education.

That said, many parents are quite satisfied with the care their kids receive from staff without these qualifications.

What Is the Staff-to-Child Ratio?

Be sure to ask what the staff-to-child ratio is and if that ratio ever changes at the daycare. Though individual states set their own staffing ratios for childcare facilities, the American Academy of Pediatrics specifically recommends a ratio of one adult for every three babies 24-35 months of age. NAEYC-accredited daycares follow specific requirements.

The ideal ratio is set at one adult per three children ages birth to 12 months; one adult to four kids ages 13 to 35 months; one adult to seven children for three-year-olds; and one adult to 10 kids for 6-year-olds.

How Safe Is the Daycare Center?

The safety of the daycare center should be a key concern for any parent. Consider asking some of these questions:

  • What is the room temperature?
  • Does the classroom feature round tables?
  • Are the materials children play with non-toxic?
  • Do providers implement cleanliness and health standards for themselves, surfaces, and toys?
  • Are cleaning materials and medicines kept safely out of reach of children?
  • Are first-aid kits visible and easily accessible to staff members?
  • Is a staff member with certified pediatric first aid training always present with each group of children? Are the teachers CPR-certified, and do they receive regular training?
  • Does the preschool serve healthy snacks or meals? Is there a sample menu I could see?
  • If your child has a food allergy: What precautions are taken to prevent cross-contamination?
  • Is the kitchen area clean? Do teachers and children wash their hands?
  • What are the sleeping arrangements at the school? Do toddlers sleep on individuals cots?
  • Do infants sleep in individual cribs, or are they placed in cribs with other children?
  • Do providers always place babies on their backs to sleep?
  • Are sleeping areas clean and clear of potential distractions and hazards?
  • How does the staff make sure that only the child's parent, guardian, or another approved adult picks up children?
  • How do they keep track of children when they transition to the playground or another classroom?
  • What is the daycare's evacuation plan in case of an emergency? How often do teachers practice this process with the children?

What Is the Sick Policy?

Most daycare centers have specific guidelines addressing when you have to keep a kid home due to illness. Make sure you find a daycare that has a sick policy that works for you and that you are comfortable with the policy, as it pertains to your child's own potential exposure to others' illnesses.

Each daycare if different, but most daycares with a policy require a child to be symptom-free for 24 hours before returning. Symptoms typically covered under this rule include:

  • fever over a certain temperature 
  • Persistent cough
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Contagious conditions, such as head lice or pink eye

What Discipline Techniques Are Used?

The daycare will take your place as caregiver during the weekdays, so it is imperative that you find a center that enforces your basic rules for how you'd like your child to be raised. It would ideally have a parenting style and discipline technique that is consistent with your own since consistency between caregivers is essential for child development.

What is the feeding and sleeping schedule? Do the providers let children "cry it out?" How do they soothe a fussy baby? Ask how the daycare providers handle discipline. Do the caregivers use timeouts?

How do they handle hitting and biting? Also think about rules you may have at home, such as limiting television or what types of snacks you provide your child. Don't forget to ask about potty-training procedures and how teachers handle toilet accidents.

What Is the Curriculum?

Daycares should offer opportunities for exploration, as well as structured and unstructured play. Kids should be able to observe new activities performed in ways they can learn from.

Ask the daycare what type of activities and programs they have to support children's social, emotional, and physical development. Some questions about the curriculum could include:

  • How do the children occupy their time during the day?
  • Do they engage in creative play? 
  • Do the preschool teachers adhere to an organized schedule or program that includes supervised rest time?
  • Is there story, music, and/or art time during the day or week? 
  • Are children allowed to get dirty naturally through play?

When you are touring the daycare, look for both educational and creative toys, including sand/water tables, art supplies, books, blocks, puzzles, games, and dress-up costumes and props. Also look for activities that are age-appropriate. If a toddler is playing with a toy for an infant, it may be a sign that the facility is not upgrading or rotating toys.

What Do the Children Eat?

Some daycares require parents to pack all the food for the child and bring it to daycare each day. Other centers feed the children food prepared on-site.

According to the USDA, licensed daycares are required to follow nutritional standards and feed all children balanced midday meals and snacks. They must also post all menus in a public place.

Ask what is typically served for lunch and snack time, and ask where the food is prepared and stored. If your child has a food allergy, be sure to ask how allergies are handled and discuss your child's specific situation.

How Do They Communicate With Parents?

Make sure you can communicate comfortably with the childcare provider. Until your baby can talk, you will be relying on what the caregiver tells you about your child's day.

When you first hand over your child in the morning, you should tell the caregiver how your child slept, when they last ate, and if there are any other important things to pay attention to that day, such as teething.

At the end of the day, you'll want to exchange similar information, such as when they napped, if they ate and went to the bathroom, and generally how the day went overall. Some centers communicate this verbally, while others choose to keep journal notes or even send email reports. 

As your child gets older, it is still very important to know what is going on at daycare. Some centers may continue verbal or written communications, while others may not.

At this age, children are learning to share, making friends, and are figuring out how to deal with big emotions. It is also important to know what your child is learning in daycare so you can continue these lessons at home. 

Ask about how providers track progress and challenges for each child. Many daycares also have formal parent-teacher conferences where you can meet with the teacher, get updates on your child, and ask questions.

Tips For Parents

Trust Your Gut

Choosing a daycare is a very important decision, and your needs and wants are unique to your family. Trust your gut, especially when something doesn't feel right. There is a daycare that fits your needs. If you were not wooed by the center other people are raving about, keep looking until you find the right fit. 

Stop by Unannounced

Don't be shy about stopping by at other times than your scheduled tour. By doing so, you will get a sense of how the staff interacts with the children as well as the usual routine.

Sometimes your visits will confirm that the center is right for you, but sometimes these visits can be very eye-opening.

Be Open to Change

You're not married to a particular childcare situation. If things don't work out, you can always switch. Consistency is important for babies and children, but that doesn't mean you are locked into your arrangements.

Remember that children are resilient and adaptable. If one setting isn't working for you, change it. Your child will thrive in a different nurturing and safe environment. 

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bueno M, Darling-Hammond L, Gonzales D. The PEW Center on the States. A Matter of Degrees: Preparing Teachers for the Pre-K Classroom. 2010.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Child Care and Early Education. 2014.

  3. Sege RD, Siegel BS. Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children. Pediatrics. 2018;142(6):e20183112. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3112

  4. U.S. Department of Food & Agriculture. Nutrition Standards for CACFP Meals and Snacks. Updated July 16, 2013.

By Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD
Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD is a psychotherapist working with women, children, adolescents, couples and families.