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Choosing childcare is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a parent. You want your kid to be surrounded by experienced caregivers who are attentive and nurturing—people who will care for your child like he’s their own. Short of cloning yourself, here’s what to consider when looking for a daycare center your family will love.

PICK ONE THAT’S CLOSE

Your life’s hectic enough without a long trip to daycare twice a day. Grow NJ Kids has compiled a list of more than 1,000 providers along with quality ratings.

CONSIDER THE COST

Be realistic when weighing your options. There are many kinds of childcare, including larger centers and smaller in- and outside-the-home arrangements. Programs and costs vary, so find something that works with your budget.

LOOK FOR RECOMMENDATIONS

Talk to parents and read reviews on social media. If you’re new to the area, ask your pediatrician or neighbors for suggestions. Remember, not everyone has the same experiences, so keep an open mind until you tour the center.

MAKE SURE EDUCATION IS A FOCUS

“Children start learning as soon as they’re born,” says Kristen Johnson, senior director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The quality of their experiences, starting at birth, is directly linked to positive outcomes later in life, including increased educational attainment rates, healthier lifestyles and more successful careers.” Make sure caregivers are focused on your child’s early educational needs, advises Johnson. Here’s what to consider:

Infants: Ask the center’s director how caregivers foster a baby’s physical, sensory, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Toddlers: Ask for specific examples of how caregivers provide daily learning opportunities for your little one. Make sure reading time is built into each day between crawling and exploring.

Three-year-olds: Over time, caregivers will tune into each child’s strengths and needs. Make sure your child’s needs are understood and projects are developed to motivate her.

Special needs children: Do caregivers provide an inclusive environment that nurtures a sense of belonging and positive social relationships? You need to feel like teachers are helping your child develop to his full potential.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Environment: Is it clean? Are kids having fun? Is there a good supply of toys, books and learning activities? Are children interacting with each other and teachers? Where do they nap? Are babies, toddlers and preschoolers grouped together by age? Are babies given one-on-one time and cuddled when given a bottle?

Staff: What’s the teacher-to-child ratio? (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one adult for every four babies up to 30 months old for groups of eight or less). Are caregivers engaged with kids? Are they playing on the floor and reading to them? Do children have free time to play on their own? How are kids disciplined? Are caregivers calm, happy and knowledgeable? Has the staff received training in CPR and first aid? How long have staff members been working there? Children need the security of seeing the same faces every day and caregivers need time to understand each kid. If you’re using in-home childcare, what’s the back-up plan when the caregiver gets sick?

Policies: What happens when parents are late to pick up? Are parents looped in on daily activities? How does the center handle sick children? What’s the vaccination policy? How are food allergies handled?

—New Orleans native Karen B. Gibbs is a freelance writer specializing in lifestyle.

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