If you plan to return to work after maternity leave, you need to start looking for childcare (and at least get yourself on waiting lists) well before your baby arrives. So there's lots to consider. Let's get the hard-core matters out of the way first:

We’ve all seen it in the news: a child-care provider caught on video abusing a child. According to the National Children’s Alliance, nearly 700,000 American children are victims of abuse or neglect each year. In 90 percent of these cases, child abuse or neglect is committed by a parent or family member.

So what can you do to ensure your baby's safety? The first step is to thoroughly investigate daycare facilities and interview child-care providers before leaving your baby with them. Then, when your baby begins daycare, also be aware of any red flags that may crop up.

 


The following steps will help to ensure your little one's safety and give you peace of mind knowing you’ve taken necessary precautions:

 

FIND THE RIGHT CHILDCARE

There are several things you should do and ask before sending your child to a new daycare.

Is the childcare licensed?

Licensing is required in most states when a caregiver isn’t a relative, and the care isn’t provided in your home. Check the website of your state licensing and regulatory affairs department to look up daycare homes and facilities to ensure their license is current.

Is the childcare in compliance?

On your state’s website, also look up the requirements for daycare homes and centers. Then keep this information handy when you tour a home or facility, so you know whether the daycare complies.

The childcare tour

A tour of the daycare home or facility is vital to ensuring your child’s safety. So don’t be shy, and ask for a full tour. Think of it as an inspection, and pay attention to the following:

• Are all areas used by or accessible to children thoroughly childproofed?

• Are there safety plugs in all electrical outlets?

• Are stairways securely blocked off?

• Do kitchen and bathroom cabinets have child locks?

• Do exterior doors have safety locks up high?

• Is there a pool or hot tub in the area? If so, is it entirely fenced off with a childproof gate?

• Is there a fenced outdoor play area?

• Is the home or facility tidy aside from a reasonable amount of toys?

• Are the bathroom and kitchen sanitary?

• Is the heating or cooling set at a comfortable temperature?

• Are there adequate toys and equipment for the number and ages of children?

• Do cribs, playpens and other baby equipment meet safety standards?

• Are the number of children present within the daycare’s license capacity? Does the daycare also meet the appropriate ratio of caregivers to children?

• Does it smell clean? Or do you smell neglected diapers or cigarette smoke?

• Are the children happy and content?

• Is there ample play space?

• How does the staff interact with the children?

The childcare interview

Take this list of questions with you and add yours as well. Childcare providers expect parents to have many questions, and a good provider will be happy to answer them.

• What is the maximum number of children in your care at any time?

• What are the age ranges of children in your care?

• What types of activities do you do with them?

• Are meals and snacks provided? If so, of what do they consist? Also, what time do the kids eat?

• Can I drop in unannounced?

• How do you handle discipline?

• Do you ever take children in the car? If so, are there enough child seats and seat belts for each child?

• Are there other members living in your home or outside staff who will care for the children? If so, who are they and what are their ages?

• How are naps handled?

• What is the experience or education of the daycare provider and staff?

• What is your policy when a child is sick?

• Can I talk to the parents of other children in your care?

• Is video available so I can peek in at my child on my computer or phone?

 

SUSPICIONS OF NEGLECT OR ABUSE

Signs to look for

No matter how cautious you are in choosing a daycare, there’s still the slight possibility neglect or abuse can occur. Many symptoms of abuse are easily explained by other things, however. So parents must take into account what they know about their child combined with all other factors to make an educated guess. As statistics reveal, the likelihood is higher when your child is in the care of a family member or friend. But regardless of who’s caring for your child, when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

The following are signs of abuse. So be on the alert if your child:

• suddenly becomes fussy or withdrawn.

• gets upset when being left at daycare or with a sitter.

• has injuries such as bumps, bruises, bites, scratches, cuts, burns or broken bones, especially if these occur in a baby that isn’t yet walking.

• regresses in skills already learned, such as walking or potty training.

• cries frequently.

• acts out suddenly or in an unusual way.

• has night terrors.

• looks dazed.

• flinches at sudden movement.

• complains of unexplained aches and pains.

• has any unusual signs in the genital area such as itching, bruising, bleeding, or difficulty walking or sitting.

• expresses unusual curiosity in or knowledge of sex.

• shows inappropriate affection.

• often brings home gifts from a caregiver.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT A PROBLEM

The first thing to do if something doesn’t seem right is to calmly and casually ask your child a few questions. Ask, “Is there anything that happened today you didn’t like?” “Is there anyone you don’t like, or that you’re afraid of?” If so, ask your child who and why? Whatever you do, keep a reassuring tone. That way your child knows it’s OK to talk to you about what’s bothering him.

If you have the slightest concern something is wrong, don’t send your child back until you’ve thoroughly investigated the situation.

The next step is to have your child examined by a doctor for any signs of physical or sexual abuse you may have missed.

Even if the doctor gives your child a clean bill of health, that doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring. Abuse often occurs without traces of evidence. So take all the factors into account to make a judgment.

If you suspect abuse may have occurred, report it so it can be thoroughly investigated. If nothing happened, there’s no foul. But if your suspicion was right, your report will also help ensure the safety of other children in the provider’s care.

In Tennessee, to report a suspected licensing violation or possible child care operation, call the Child Care Complaint Hotline at 615-313-4820 or toll free at 1-800-462-8261.