It was too hot for me to be doing this. But at eight months pregnant and due at the end of June, I waddled into many day care centers anyway.
I knew that since both my income and my husband's were required to make ends meet, it was a matter of when, not if, I would be returning to work after maternity leave.
After editing stories about long waiting lists at day care centers in the central Pasco area, I figured I had better get busy.
I learned some good lessons during my search.
Start looking now. Many centers do not accept infants, so choices can be limited. Waiting lists for that age group can be long, especially in areas where growth is fueled by young families. Toddler care is more widely available, but the best centers tend to stay full, so sign up early.
Mother knows best. If you're new to the area and don't know other moms, a good way to find them is by joining a moms' group.
Some groups are for stay-at-home moms only, but others welcome working moms. Some even let you join while you are still pregnant. There's still nothing like word of mouth to narrow your search, though you shouldn't rely solely on it.
Ask the experts anyway. Every Florida county has an early learning coalition.
These nonprofit agencies oversee subsidized child care centers and the state's voluntary prekindergarten program open to all Florida 4-year-olds.
They also act as a clearinghouse of information about all area child care centers.
They can help match you with a center or home care provider who meets your family's needs.
• Hernando and Pasco counties: (727) 233-8291 or visit www.phelc.org.
• Hillsborough County: (813) 229-2884 or visit www.elchc.org.
• Pinellas County: (727) 548-1439 or visit elcpinellas.org.
• Manatee County: (941) 714-7449 or visit elc-manatee.org.
It's not just location, location, location. Of course location and the cost of the center are important, but even more important is what is best for your child, says Jim Farrelly, executive director of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition.
"You wouldn't believe how many people ask only those questions," he said.
Nice to meet you. Look for positive caring relationships between teachers and children. The atmosphere should be cheerful and most important, safe. Some questions to ask:
• How long have staffers been there? Look for low turnover rates.
• How many staffers have degrees in child development?
• What is the student-teacher ratio?
• Does it go beyond what the state requires?
• Does the center serve meals? If so, get menus to gauge their nutrition.
• Does the center have a strict policy regarding illness?
• Are parents welcome to drop in?
Do your homework. The Department of Children and Families inspects each center and issues reports, which are public records and available online.
Check the state licensing Web site, www.myflorida.com/child care, to view inspection reports.
Drop in and play. Once you have a center in mind, let your child visit and interact with the other children and teachers to see if it's a good fit.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.