We’ve already published a guide on how returning to work need not be the end of your breastfeedng journey, but many of our members have asked what to look for in childcare.
The first decision is what sort of environment you are wanting your child to be in. My personal circumstances mean that I can work part time, and little one is looked after by a mix of grandmother, father and a local nursery while I am out. I’m glad that I am able to give him a variety of experiences. I am not the most social of people and am not inclined to go to toddler and baby groups, so it is great he is able to mix with children his own age (without picking up my bad habits of sitting in the corner and playing Candy Crush). This is why I wanted to use a nursery, while I know others like the one-to-one approach of a childminder. As always there isn’t a right or wrong answer, just what suits you.
When you’ve decided what you want to use, remember you aren’t the first mother to look for childcare in your area. Talk to your friends and neigbours and ask for their experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly. The problems can be very revealing – nowhere is perfect, but how they deal with them is a good sign of their quality.
If you want a more formal analysis, there are reports available from the government standards agency in your area (Ofsted in England, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own systems). Please give the report a thorough read though, because you might miss a gem if you just look at the headlines. The only reason my ‘good’ nursery didn’t get rated as ‘outstanding’ was because there wasn’t enough time spent in outdoor play and the lunchtime routine didn’t give the children problem solving opportunities. And I can assure you they have taken that feedback on board, but the rating will stay until the next inspection.
You can find these reports and a wealth of information on the Directgov website. They will guide you on childcare vouchers, extra help to pay for it and even how to employ someone in your own home if a nanny or au pair is more suitable for you. If you are not familiar with the voucher scheme, your employer will deduct the cost you require (up to a certain amount) before they deduct tax and national insurance and you can use these to pay for the childcare. There were plans to change the scheme so the government topped up whatever you spend, but these have been delayed until 2017 – the details are here. I’m not a financial advisor, but I would say the existing scheme works better for those who pay more tax and if you are enrolled in the scheme you don’t have to change. So if you think the first one is better for you, I’d suggest signing up and apply for the minimum amount before it closes for new entrants.
The Northern Ireland site gave a list of questions to ask day nurseries that cover most of the bases:
- what is the ratio of carers to children and what was the turnover of staff in the last year?
- what are the routine activities?
- when and where are the sleep sessions?
- will they take the children off the day nursery premises?
- can they provide a special diet if required?
- what is their policy on discipline?
- is there an opportunity to talk to the carer at the beginning and end of each day?
- what is their settling-in policy?
- can you see their most recent inspection report?
On the whole there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. For example a nursery that employs talented people and gives them good training may find staff move on to other forms of education or promotions. Similarly your idea of what is appropriate discipline may be the complete opposite of someone else’s. A good childcare provider will try to follow your lead because children benefit from a unified approach, but of course this isn’t always possible, so it is worthwhile making sure it is a good fit for what is important to you.
I would add to the list to check that there are numerous first aid qualified staff to make sure there is always someone on site with the right skills in an emergency. Also to make sure you are happy health and safety procedures are appropriate and being followed.
But to me it was more than checking tick boxes – I was giving my most precious possession into the care of these people. So did I like them? Were the children happy? Did I enjoy their company enough to trust that my son would too? A friend visited a nursery where the staff took no pride in their appearance and looked like they needed a damn good wash. As a mum you’ve spent a lot of time learning to read non verbal cues and body language, so it is ok to say no to somewhere just because it feels off to you.
I’d also recommend picking somewhere close to your home as a first choice and work as a second choice. The travel may not seem like much but it adds up in both time and cost. Plus your holiday and parental leave is too precious to waste because the road to your childminder’s house is blocked by snow. Once you have agreed the days you need, most nurseries will still charge you for these when you go on holiday or have a day off from work. I have taken advantage of these by still sending my son, but going to the gym, or having some quality time with my husband. This is much easier because I picked one close to home. Trust me I don’t go anywhere close to work on my days off.
For younger children you will need to establish how they handle your baby’s milk. Whether it is formula or breastmilk they should have established practices and for some it has been a deal-breaker when the nursery wouldn’t warm a bottle or only gave it at a certain time and not when a baby needed it. Washable nappies also became a huge issue for a friend when nurseries have refused to handle them when dirty (but had no problems changing clothers that became soiled). Again these things might not bother you either way, but I think they are a good indication of whether they will treat your child as an indvidual with their own needs.
It is also worth checking their policy on medication and illness. My nursery will only administer paracetamol if it has been prescribed by a doctor and with dosing information on the prescription label, which was easy to get, but it did of course require a little pre-plannning. If your little one has problems that require a more knowledge and care make sure this is discussed in advance. Similarly, my little one picked up a vomiting bug and needed to be free of symptoms for 48 hours before they would let him return.
Even though I knew I had found a great nursery, it was tough. I was returning to a job I loved with the ideal part time hours and had always wanted to keep working, but I had no idea I would miss my son so much, or find adult company so dissatisfying. After the initial settling in period when he would cry when I left (only to stop as soon as I was out of sight) he has made wonderful relationships with the other children and staff. It is very bittersweet to see him demand a cuddle from his keyworker and wave me off. These feelings are all, of course, normal and I think mums are programmed to doubt themselves.
So I keep reminding myself of all the benefits of working and using childcare. Did you know, alongside breastfeeding, it can reduce the risk of leukaemia? Then there is the delight when you see what your child has learnt. When my nephew was 2 he told his mother off for not following the Green Cross Code, something his nursery taught as early as possible. Finally, when I come home and see his smile when he spots me. Though I am sure it is all about me and not the boobs.