Quality child care is maddeningly hard to find. Here are some tips to help.

I thought I understood what it takes to raise a child. Like many first-time parents, I did my homework in the months leading up to my son’s birth, feeling confident in my pursuit of a well-laid plan.

And then came the search for child care.

Most parents need help in the child-minding department. The latest U.S. census data found that 61% of children younger than age 5 are in some form of regular care. Help from relatives accounted for 42%, followed by nonrelative care (33%) and a combination of the two (12%). The process can feel insurmountable; in a University of Michigan poll, 62% of parents with children ages 1 to 5 attending child care or preschool said it was difficult to find options that met all of their standards.

We want the best for our children, but when it comes to the hours spent away from them, what exactly does that look like? What should we expect from child-care providers, and how can we identify the high-quality options? I asked some experts for answers.

“Parents really have to become their own private investigators”

Child-care research can be nerve-racking, especially in what feels like a vacuum compared with the barrage of pregnancy and baby-related reference books. Time is precious: Many mothers begin their search while still pregnant, according to Child Care Aware of America, which conducted focus groups of parents across four states in 2016. The national nonprofit organization found that although word-of-mouth referrals from friends and family were the preferred source of information and recommendations, the internet — Google searches, Facebook pages and groups, Yelp reviews — was also a common resource.

The reliability of this type of sourcing is shaky at best. In March, the child-care marketplace Care.com removed 46,594 day-care centers — about 72% of its listings — from its website. The change came just before the publication of a Wall Street Journal report that found the company’s “preliminary screening” process failed to verify caregiver credentials or to check for criminal histories, including cases of sexual assault and child abuse. The resulting backlash led to founder and chief executive Sheila Lirio Marcelo’s resignation in August.

Michelle McCready knows the stories. “It can be terrifying,” says the deputy executive director of Child Care Aware of America of finding quality providers. “Parents really have to become their own private investigators and, frankly, do a lot of the legwork themselves.”

So where should parents look for reliable resources? For one, McCready pointed to her group’s Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) partners, agencies whose services are free and can “help navigate through things like licensing and inspection reports.”

CCR&R agencies operate at the local level and offer referrals for vetted child-care providers, information on state licensing requirements and financial information for low-income families. Parents can locate and work with an agency via phone or email by filling out their online search form.

Parents who prefer a more hands-on approach can browse the Department of Health and Human Services’ database of child-care resources in their area, including names and contact information of administrative staff, past complaints, employee names and background check statuses, and a history of state inspections.

For parents learning toward nanny care, McCready says it’s important to understand that nanny agencies aren’t necessarily subject to the same regulations as care centers. In addition to checking references, she suggests performing the same background check required for care centers under federal law, including:

• An FBI fingerprint check to verify identity, employment and criminal history.

• A search of the National Crime Information Center’s national sex offender registry.

• A search of the state registries where the applicant has lived within the past five years including the state criminal registry or repository (many states provide free online resources and database searches), state sex offender registry and state-based child abuse and neglect registry and database.

The International Nanny Association recommends asking for proof of education, CPR and first aid certifications to make sure your caregiver’s training aligns with your expectations. You should also review candidates’ driving records if your nanny’s duties involve shuttling the kids to school.

Look beyond licensing

Credentialed care is highly valued by parents, whether it’s a licensed day care or a nanny with a clean background check. That said, are the standard requirements enough?

“It’s important that licensing is there for health and safety reasons,” says Jim Elicker, a child development researcher and professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University. Caregivers “have to meet those basic requirements for licensing, but that’s far from providing a high-quality child care experience.”

Fortunately, there are ways to grade care centers beyond state-mandated benchmarks. Supported by the national Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), states can provide a list of caregivers that excel in the areas crucial to child development, including lower student-teacher ratios, social and emotional development, outdoor play, nutrition, language development, and superior classroom environments. “Every state has a different system, although there’s a fair amount of overlap,” Elicker says. “Based on their standards, they can assign a quality level to any provider who’s in their regulatory system. In most places, that doesn’t cover informal neighbor or family friend care, but it does usually include licensed child-care centers and licensed family child-care homes,” he says.

Adhering to licensing requirements typically qualifies care providers for the lowest QRIS rating, and in addition to a high-quality curriculum, Elicker says individual teacher qualifications are often a factor in securing a higher score.

“In general, the more education any caregiver has had that’s focused on child development and early education, the better,” he says. “Another thing to ask is if there’s any ongoing in-service training for the staff. … As you work with kids month to month, staff development needs can emerge and certain kinds of problems with your family clients can emerge, and you need to respond in a way that involves learning.”

State-specific QRIS information can be found via HHS’s QRIS Resource Guide.

Spend some time in the environment

Even if your care provider of choice looks great on paper, McCready and Elicker agree that there’s no substitution for firsthand experience. Schedule a tour to see how the center functions on a normal day. McCready recommends spending two to three hours observing the classroom and asking questions. A day care’s willingness to accommodate prospective parents is telling, as is its representatives’ ability to answer detailed questions. “Ask for a schedule of daily activities including mealtimes, activities, nap and who will be interacting with the child during those times,” she says. “When a staff teacher is ill, who takes over? How often are those people with the kids?”

McCready also encourages parents to pay attention to the staff’s level of engagement and general mood. “The number one driver of quality is how an adult is interacting with a child. All the brain science shows that it’s not just about learning the ABCs, but really that emotional, social nurturing ability — that’s where the mind and the brain develop,” she says.

It’s also wise to ask the day care director about the staff’s compensation and level of turnover, because a lack of consistency can be difficult for young children to manage. “Child care is one of the lowest-paid professions,” McCready says. “If staff are supported and well compensated, that is going to keep them in that position.”

Preemptive observation is more difficult for in-home care, and just as you would observe a day-care setting, spending time with a potential nanny is key.

“If I were looking for a nanny to care for my own child, I would do more than just have a sit-down interview for half an hour,” Elicker says. “I would invite them to come and spend an afternoon with me and my kids and do some things like go to the park, have a picnic, so that I can really get a better sense of what kind of a person they are. Do they really enjoy being with kids and are they making a connection? Are they showing an interest in my kids as individuals — in other words, are they asking me questions about each of them and what they what they typically like to do, what they eat, and so on?”

Elicker notes the added stress level that comes with an unregulated environment and says a nanny cam could be useful and comforting in the early days, but only with the nanny’s knowledge.

“I certainly think nannies should be informed upon hiring if they are going to be recorded,” he says, “but really, how else would parents know what is going on while they are away? There is a parallel to this in university laboratory preschools, which often have observation booths with one-way mirrors in every classroom. While this may be nerve-racking for some new staff, I have observed that most teachers get used to it, and I believe it has a positive effect on teaching and caring quality.”

A child-care solution isn’t coming soon for American parents. As we continue to tread against the current of limited options, year-long wait lists and high costs, it’s somewhat comforting, if not typical, to know that we can manage the issue with a little research and a lot of self-reliance. In that respect, we’re all experts.