Julie Wells, a St. Louis mother of two, removed her son from a day care when staff members fed him snacks made from peanut products despite his peanut allergy.
"They knew about his allergy, and I even packed his own snacks," Well said. "But they were too lazy to get them out."
Unfortunately, Wells' story isn't unique. Day care disasters can haunt even the most careful parents. Something to which Brandy Hamann can attest.
Hamann, director of Lilypad Learning Center in Collinsville, Ill., and mother of three, decided to open her own center after hearing numerous such horror stories. One mother told her that a center wasn't feeding her child adequate portions. Still another complained of irregular diaper changes, Hamann recalled.
"One 18-month-old child was kicked out of a day care because he was biting," she said. "While we don't want children biting, as day care providers we have to realize that this is natural and normal -- you have to find a way to help the child find another way to express himself.
But child care outside of the home is often an unavoidable option when work and financial responsibilities loom. While worst-case, or even simply bad-case, scenarios abound, plenty safe options do exist. To find suitable options for their child, it would behoove parents to dig deeper into the practices of local day cares, take safety precautions, ask friends for suggestions and trust their intuition
Assessing Your Child
Assessing your child's needs includes evaluating her educational, social and emotional well-being, according to Sue Palmer, author of "Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children."
"We must put care first," she insisted. "We need to value human input to make a child feel secure."
To do so, parents first must determine how their child learns. Does she learn well with visuals, such as flash cards, role-playing and hands-on activities? Hamann suggested that parents look closely at a care center's curriculum to determine whether it fits the child's learning style. And are the lessons-age appropriate?
Early-learning standards vary by state, according to the National Child Care Information Center, which keeps a database of each state's learning guidelines. In Alabama, for example, early-learning guidelines recommend that newborns (birth to 12 months) be encouraged to express sounds and cries, and explore fingers and toes with adequate supervised floor time. Infants need activities that encourage curiosity and interest. Toddlers should have activities that encourage them to describe sounds, names, things and people, while 2- and 3-year-olds should be actively engaged in activities that encourage self-sufficiency, such as washing their hands, dressing themselves and using utensils. In Illinois, Hamann had 2-year-olds working on letter and name recognition, while 3-year-olds had a decidedly more advanced track---working on themed activities that tied into black history month.
Parents can request detailed lesson plans to ensure that the day care will meet the educational needs of their children. Does the center conduct progress reports or learning assessments weekly, monthly or yearly? What types of learning projects do the children participate in regularly?
These questions are important, but broad learning fundamentals should in some regards give way to an individual child's emotional needs. So, finding quality care means understanding how your child likes to be nurtured, as well. Does your child need hugs and outward nurturing to feel secure when away from you? Children typically need an emotional connection with the teachers and care providers to feel secure in a day care environment, Hamann said, emphasizing the people, not simply the facility.
"Parents need to look at the child interaction with the adults in the room," she advised. "I tell my parents that I may not have a million-dollar building, but I have a million-dollar staff."
Assessing the Care
First and foremost, learning at a day care should be fun for the child and comforting for the parent. But investigating what to expect from a day care requires baby steps. It is important to know not only your child's needs, but also the law. Day care facilities have a legal obligation to meet licensing requirements for meals and staff-to-children ratios, as well as to follow recommended early-learning standards.
Regulations, like learning guidelines, are state-specific, though. For example, Illinois sets the staff-to-children ratio for ages 6 weeks to 9 months at 1-to-4, compared with 1-to-20 for children 10 years and older. Overall caps on enrollment are also determined at the state level based on building size and staffing. Hamann's Lilypad Learning Center is licensed to serve as many as 76 children at one time.
Day care food services also fall under the umbrella of state regulation.
"We follow the recommended food pyramid plan, where each meal includes a meat, milk product, fruit or vegetable and bread or bread alternative," Hamann said.
Indeed, adherence to these regulations should be at the fore of day-care selection. Parents have every right to inquire about the lesson plans and qualifications of teachers, Hamann said. A visit to a day care center might help parents evaluate whether the center is suitable for their child, but the assessment should not stop at the door. Knowing who will be with your child at all times means understanding if the center employs aides with proper certifications and degrees, as well.
Day care facilities whose staff members are trained to foster growth should have answers ready for inquisitive parents who need and deserve reassurance. Reassurance is a necessary component of the decision-making process, according to Palmer, author of "Detoxing Childhood."
For further reassurance, parents can turn to the state. States regularly compile statistics and evaluations on day care facilities, accessed through each state's health and human services department. The National Association for Regulatory Administration also provides the annual Child Care Licensing Study, which spotlights licensing procedures and guidelines for day cares.
It also helps to research whether the facility has an open-door policy. If parents are not welcome to visit while their child is at a center, this should raise a red flag, according to Hamann.
"Day care directors and teachers should do everything possible to put parents at ease," Hamann said. "Oftentimes, when a parent is worried about her child, we will send a quick text message or send a mobile picture of the child to reassure that parent."
Despite the conscientious efforts of parents like Wells, the mother of two, and care providers like Hamann, the mother of three, child care selection can innocently enough fall victim to busy schedules, to life. Where good intentions become checked off a to-do list, hasty decisions can be made, even unwittingly so to the parent who thought she did her due diligence. But the value of child care is at the core of a parent's decision, Palmer emphasizes.
"We have to, as a society, value child care more," she said. "Parents have to make the best decision they can with the right information."
Indeed, finding the "right" information is key.