The first thing parents should understand when searching for infant child care is the limited number of providers in Central New York compared to the huge demand. Parents are advised to get on a waiting list even before the baby is born.
But regardless of the apparent shortage of infant care, every option should be weighed carefully, local experts say.
“Cost, convenience and quality,” says Clare White, executive director of the SUNY Upstate Child Care Center in Syracuse, which is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and is an employer-sponsored child care center. “Those are the main ideas, but there are still many questions to ask.”
For one, parents must consider the cost. The average price for full-time infant care at a day care facility in Onondaga County is $244 per week, according to Child Care Solutions, Onondaga and Cayuga counties’ child care referral and advocacy agency, with locations in DeWitt and Auburn. The average full-time cost for family-based providers, or those who are licensed to provide child care out of their own home, is $165 per week.
Location is another factor in decisions about child care. Parents who have multiple children usually prefer to keep their kids at one place, and they prefer somewhere that is a reasonable distance from their home or workplace. Some providers offer early drop-off times and late pickup times—another point to consider.
Determining the quality of care is more difficult than simply weighing cost, location and schedule. To help measure quality, Child Care Solutions and the providers themselves have ample material to help parents choose. New York State Office of Children and Family Services standards for infant day care are already very stringent. The ratio of infants (ages 6 weeks to 18 months) to number of licensed providers at centers is 4 to 1. For a licensed home-based provider, the ratio is 2 to 1.
The state also requires at least one provider at a child care center complete pediatric first aid training, although it’s not uncommon for centers to require all providers on staff to complete that training regardless of what age group they care for. There are additional standards for food preparation, health and safety, and play time; licensed providers are required to include outdoor play for babies during the warmer months.
White says prospective customers should also ask about staff turnover, and whether there is an open-door policy where they are allowed to visit their child at any time, even if unannounced.
“It’s also important to ask if (the facility) is breastfeeding-friendly during those visits,” White says. “Parents should also feel welcome, and there should be a well-developed orientation for them. Parents should get to know their caregivers.”
Child Care Solutions publishes a free brochure, Parent Guide to Finding High Quality Child Care. In addition to providing information on family care, group family care and child care center costs, regulations, financial aid options and tips for measuring quality, the brochure also explains the requirements for having relatives, friends or neighbors care for young children. While these options are largely exempt from state regulations, the agency does point out that a person who cares for more than two children (who are not relatives) for more than three hours a day should be licensed as a child care provider.
Parents are encouraged to research and monitor child care providers using the New York State Office of Children and Family Services’ site at ocfs.ny.gov. That agency, which regulates providers, posts the compliance history of providers on its site. It notes what types of violations occurred but does not provide details on incidents.
“So it’s up to the parents to ask what happened, and what (the provider) did to correct it,” says Mary Lanno, Child Care Solutions parent services coordinator. “Not having a lid on a trash can is a lot different than having a disciplinary issue.”
Lanno also advises parents to show up to the child care provider’s facility or home unannounced from time to time to monitor consistency.
“People do a lot more thorough checks buying their car or buying a house than they do with child care,” she says. “But checking for yourself is important. An infant can’t tell you what kind of day they’ve had.”
Lanno recommends checking out as many providers as possible and narrowing it down to a final three, if possible. Parents should proceed with their research and decision-making process even if they are on a waiting list for a center. But Lanno cautions against setting unrealistic expectations.
“You don’t want to try and find someone exactly like you,” she says, “because you’re not going to find that perfect person.”
Child Care Solutions employees emphasize that while they make referrals for different child care providers, they do not make recommendations. It’s really up to the parents to ask the right questions and decide for themselves, says Patrice Robinson, the agency’s marketing director.
“After the research, it ultimately comes down to where you feel comfortable,” she says. “It really is an individual preference.”
Clare White, the Upstate Child Care Center executive director, added that parents or expecting parents need to immediately get over any timidity about asking tough questions. Staff at her facility and many others are happy to introduce all of their employees to prospective parents, but the parents should go beyond that and see what they can find out from other parents who were in the same situation.
“You should never underestimate the effectiveness of word of mouth,” White says.
Simone Seward, of East Syracuse, visited 14 infant care providers, both family care and centers, before she enrolled her kids at Upstate Child Care. She began her search about four months before her first child, Tristan (now 6), was born. All three of her final choices had waiting lists.
Seward says she was looking for a place that was “clean, bright and homey.” She wanted the rooms to be organized, so the person in charge of a child had a clear line of sight to the youngsters at all times.
She also paid close attention to how the caregivers interacted with the children and other parents. For Seward, it was important to see if a provider was quick to walk away from a conversation with a parent in order to tend to a child’s need.
“Because we knew what we were looking for, the search was a lot easier,” Seward says. “It really depends on how particular you are. We looked at 14. Maybe that’s a lot, but to get a good feel of the different types of centers, I would recommend visiting at least five or six.”