The location is convenient, the agreed-upon rate for childcare is manageable. The hours of operation fit your work schedule and your little one is ga-ga about the ocean mural on the wall. Your prospective sitter or daycare center is qualified, licensed or accredited in a way that makes you comfortable.

" 'Loving children' is a great philosophy for any childcare provider, but it doesn't necessarily equate to being competent and well-trained."

- Patricia Lyons,
Executive Director of PCAO at
Nationwide Children's Hospital

The location is convenient, the agreed-upon rate for childcare is manageable. The hours of operation fit your work schedule and your little one is ga-ga about the ocean mural on the wall. Your prospective sitter or daycare center is qualified, licensed or accredited in a way that makes you comfortable.

So what more could you possibly need to know before you drop off your little one and start to blow goodbye kisses? Plenty.

We asked area experts to help us compile a list of key questions for your childcare provider, whether you're looking for a daycare center or family daycare environment.

"The economy is forcing more parents than ever into the workplace," said Patricia Lyons, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Ohio (PCAO) at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Her office publishes a booklet with care provider questions as part of its Parent Resource Line. "In some cases, parents may be desperate just to find someone to watch their child, but it's important to remember there are tips and resources to make it work well. You're dealing with your most valuable and most vulnerable possession here," Lyons said. "You have to be the advocate, whether you've got someone caring for your child for 15 minutes or six hours."

What's the normal plan?
Most facilities will make a point of filling you in on their policies and procedures right away, said Ashlei Gilmore, a teacher at Noah's Ark Learning Center in Sunbury. "Still, so many incidents and anxieties can be avoided with the exchange of information from the beginning," Gilmore said. "We need to know your expectations and want the opportunity to tell you ours. That's important to me both as a parent and as the person taking care of your kids."

Ask about your child's day and make a point of watching caregivers interact with other children in that environment before making your decision. "Schedules are indicative of routine and stability," said Janet Bruton, educational coordinator at Stepping Stones Learning Center in Worthington. "Children thrive on routines, as well as novelty. There should be a nice balance of both."

Bruton added that familiarizing yourself with day-to-day basics can help you feel more connected to your child throughout the day. "[Parents] can look up at the clock and visualize what their child is doing at that time," Bruton said. "Like napping, eating lunch, large muscle activity."

Activities should be age-appropriate with a focus on developmental benchmarks, emphasized Bruton and Dr. Praveena Dhawale, a pediatrician at Associated Pediatrics in Westerville and Columbus, and a mother of two children in daycare. "Developmentally, I think the most important thing for a daycare or sitter is to provide a stimulating atmosphere," Dhawale said. "Kids soak up what's in their environment, good and bad, even without being directly taught."

Bruton suggests that parents ask if learning experiences and activities are aligned with Ohio Early Learning Content Standards. Television time should be kept to a minimum, Dhawale said. "Outside play in a safe environment is important to overall physical fitness and health, as well as being fun and stimulating," she said.

Meals and snacks are another area in which to pay close attention, according to Lyons. "It seems like it should go without saying, but the food should be nourishing, age-appropriate and fresh. It should be made when they arrive," she said. "If they're greeted by a bowl of soggy cereal in milk that's been sitting out for who-knows-how-long, that's a problem."

What's the plan for not-normal?
Where there are children, the unexpected is bound to occur. A good provider should have a plan for that as well - whether it's a medical emergency or a tantrum.

"My advice is to make sure a childcare provider at least has a written sick policy that can be reviewed and hopefully enforced," Dhawale said. "Those policies are designed to ensure the best care for a sick child and to protect non-ill children. So many childhood illnesses are highly contagious."

For a home-based childcare provider, you also need to find out what happens if the care-giver herself becomes ill, or in what way your child would be transported in the event of an emergency.

Bruton said parents should watch closely to see how a childcare provider handles discipline, keeping an eye out for guidance rather than punishment. "Be suspicious of negative punishments," Gilmore agreed. "Instead, look for examples of positive techniques like setting and explaining limits, redirecting behavior and using consequences."

"You have to ask the tough questions, too," Lyons said, "Like what [the caregiver's] plan is for when they do feel frustrated. We don't want to hear that they get stressed out or need a break like other humans, but it's normal even for Super Sitter to feel that way. They need to be realistic and have a plan, coping skills they can tell you about, whether it's a licensed facility or a home-based situation."

"I think you know when you talk to someone, when you walk into the place, if it's welcoming and is a place you won't doubt that your child's safety is top priority," Gilmore said. "You're looking for warmth and know-how combined."

" 'Loving children" is a great philosophy for any childcare provider," Lyons said, "but it doesn't necessarily equate to being competent and well-trained."

National guidelines

There are specific guidelines for how childcare providers should operate, whether they're family home care or daycare center based. The following guidelines come from the National Association of Childcare Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA):

National guidelines for caregiver-child ratios

Recommended guidelines for caregiver/teacher-to-child ratios:

One caregiver per three to four infants One caregiver per three to four young toddlers One caregiver per four to six older toddlers One caregiver per six to nine preschoolers
Recommended guidelines for group sizes

Children should be cared for in groups of no more than:
Six to eight infants Six to 12 young toddlers Eight to 12 older toddlers 12 to 20 preschoolers 20 to 24 school aged children
Childcare provider qualifications

Ask for the following information regarding a childcare provider's qualifications to care for your child:

A criminal history background check (more accurate when based on fingerprints) Does the center director have a college degree, preferably in early childhood education, child development, or a related field? How many staff members have degrees in those fields? How many staff members have their CDA (Child Development Associate Credential)? How many staff members have training on child abuse prevention? Will someone with CPR and first aid training always be with my child?