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Choosing Child Care Service

Whether you are looking for a day care center or at-home care, choosing child care service requires doing your homework.
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WebMD Feature

Expectant parents should have more on their minds than shopping for playpens and stocking up on enough diapers to fill a three-car garage. They can't overlook one of the most important decisions they'll make for the well-being of their new baby - finding high-quality child care service.

For decades, two-career families have been the norm in many American households, requiring a search for someone to care for the children, either inside or outside the home. In the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, there was actually a trend toward more families deciding that one parent or the other would reduce work commitments and become the primary caretaker. But now, the momentum appears to be shifting in the opposite direction again, leaving more parents competing for the available care out there.

"After 9/11, all of the child care centers I consult for reported a reduction in the number of children they care for," says Pam Schiller, PhD, a child development specialist and author of The Practical Guide to Quality Child Care and Start Smart: Building Brain Power in the Early Years. "But now the enrollments have picked up again."

Looking for Quality

Child care service isn't always what it should be. The majority of available care isn't high quality, cautions child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. So it makes sense to start the search for good care early and do your homework.

If you're going to need child care service in the first few weeks or months of your baby's life, begin looking before your newborn arrives. "Set aside time in the last trimester of your pregnancy to visit centers in your area," advises Sherry Workman, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Professionals. "Ask friends and neighbors for referrals. Keep in mind that in some areas of the country, there are waiting lists for infant care."

The No. 1 priority should be the well-being of your child, but the perfect fit might be available in a variety of venues: a formal child-care center, informal care of small groups of children in private homes (so-called "family child care"), or a babysitter or au pair who comes into your own home. A study at the University of Washington in 2002 found that the majority of child care service -- involving tens of millions of American children -- is provided by relatives, friends, and neighbors. Grandparents, for example, provide much of this care for young children.

The Optimal Caregiver

Many child development experts believe that in an ideal world, parents should be the primary caregivers, particularly in the early weeks and months of a child's life. "Parental care is particularly important for babies, who need to be properly nurtured and receive plenty of interaction with the caregiver," says Greenspan.

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