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Going Back to Work after Baby: Choosing the Right Nursery or Childcare Center

What to consider when looking for the best facility for your little one

In my previous posts about "Feeling Stressed about Going Back to Work: Easing the Transition," and "Choosing Childcare in the UAE: the Pros and Cons of Nannies vs Nurseries" I laid out some of the things to consider when deciding what kind of childcare to use once you go back to work. If you have already decided on a nursery or other childcare center rather than in-home nanny care, this article will help you start the process, because we know it can all feel a little overwhelming at first!

Choosing a good Daycare Center or Nursery will involve asking plenty of questions and doing your research. Start your search early so you have time to visit several centers and will have time to get your name on the list when you find one you love.

Firstly, think about your priorities: Do you need to have your child in a particular location, near to home or to your workplace? Is price a main concern? Hours of operation? Do you need it to run all summer and over holidays? Does your child have any special needs or requirements which must be taken into the decision? Are you interested in a particular curriculum or approach, such as a British or Scandinavian curriculum, or a Montessori program for example?

Next, start your research: Ask your friends and acquaintances with children for suggestions, search local publications and parent forums, go to nursery exhibitions and look around your area. Then visit several centers, preferably without your child at first. If you like a nursery, bring your child and assess his or her reaction. A good nursery or daycare center should have a welcoming, friendly atmosphere and a nurturing, stimulating environment. Be mindful of your first impression, but be sure to tour the place thoroughly and ask many questions.

Things to Look for in a Nursery or Day Care Center:

1. Safety: Indoor and outdoor areas should be secure so children cannot slip out and strangers cannot walk in from the street. The building should be in good repair and well-ventilated, lit, and climate-controlled. Toys and play equipment should be in good repair, upstairs windows (if any) should be secured or have screens and bars, staircases should have gates, all medicines and other hazardous substances should be out of reach, bedding should be fresh and firm (to protect from SIDS or Cot Death for babies). Smoke detectors and sprinkler systems should be in place and working and the facility should conduct regular fire drills with the staff and children. A first aid kit and fire extinguisher should be close at hand, and all standard child-proofing techniques should be used (covered outlets, safety gates, door latches, no hanging blind cords or chains, etc.)

2. Cleanliness: A good Nursery is clean and sanitary. Floors, walks, walls, and the kitchen and eating areas should be clean, food preparation areas should be far from toilets and nappy changing areas, rubbish bins shouldn’t be left sitting full, toys should be disinfected regularly, and staff and children should wash their hands regularly and after every nappy change or trip to the toilet.

3. Concern for Health: What medical staff and facilities does the Center have? Nurseries in the UAE are required to have a nurse on duty and a doctor who visits regularly and when you register you will pay for those services with your medical fees. The Nursery also should have a separate area to isolate ill children until parents can collect them and a strict sick-child policy. Find out what illness will keep your child home, and for how long. A tough policy may inconvenience you if your child is ill, but keeping sick children (and staff) away from the center will help you in the long run. Good centers cut down on illnesses by requiring all children and employees to have up-to-date immunizations and regular checkups.

4. A Child-Friendly Space: The facility should look like a fun place for children. There should be plenty of space for the number of children in the class and in the entire facility. There should be indoor and outdoor play areas: children should have the chance to play outside every day if weather permits, but there should be something fun to do inside when the weather is not nice. Tables, equipment and lavatories should be at child-level and there should be pictures on cupboards and shelves to show where toys are kept to encourage independence. Child-friendly books should be within reach of the children. In the classrooms there should be well-organized areas around the room for different activities (home corner, book corner, construction corner, etc.) Carpet on the floor will reduce noise and provide a comfortable place for circle time and stories. Facilities should be adaptable to both independent and adult-led learning.

5. A Stimulating Curriculum: The best nurseries and daycare centers have structured schedules that include plenty of time for physical activity, quiet time (including daily reading sessions for groups and individuals), group programs, individual activities, meals, snacks and free time. Children’s artwork should be prominently displayed and should look like the work of children, not teachers. Television and videos should play little or no part in your child’s day and, if used, must be age-appropriate and educational. Young children should be learning numbers and letters in the context of play and everyday experiences, and NOT with worksheets. The center should have a wide range of age-appropriate toys that will encourage your child’s development and stimulate creative, imaginative play. A well thought-out curriculum stimulates your child’s development and makes daily life more fun, and should be adaptable to kids who need additional help and kids who are ahead of the others.

6. A Qualified, Caring Staff: A trained, qualified staff is one big advantage that nurseries and daycare centers have over nannies and at-home care providers. Make sure the staff does have training, qualifications and experience in early childhood care and education. Staff should be also be trained in CPR and First Aid. Observe how the staff interacts with the children. Caregivers should be responsible, enthusiastic, and well-prepared. Look for a staff that shares your beliefs on sleep, discipline, feeding and other care issues. Good caregivers will want detailed information about your child’s health and care requirements. Managers should be qualified, experienced and have strong leadership skills and a hands-on approach.

7. Continuity of Care: Will the same people be looking after your child each day and over time? Turnover is inevitable in a transient place such as the UAE, but look for policies which support the staff and limit changes as much as possible.

8. A Suitable Ratio of Staff to Children: UAE law requires the following ratios of staff to children to be maintained (at a minimum: )

  • Birth to 12 months: 1 to 3

  • 1 year to 2 years: 1 to 3

  • 2 years to 3 years: 2 to 4

  • 3 years to 4 years: 2 to 13

A good center will keep groups of children small no matter how many employees they have, to encourage interaction and development, as well as safety. Also, children should be grouped by age at least to some extent to allow for different developmental and educational needs.

9. Settling in period: What do they suggest in terms of settling your child into

nursery? If you have different expectations for how to settle your child in, will they accommodate you? Once settled in, children should look forward to school and be happy at pick-up time, but it can take several weeks and even months to get settled in. It is quite normal for babies and young children to be sad or tearful when saying goodbye to you, even when they are well settled into nursery. Once they are settled, however, that tearful transition should be brief and easily distracted by fun activities and caregivers they know and trust.

10. Policies and Ground Rules: While it is important for a nursery to be flexible—letting you pick up and drop off at different times, for instance—it should also have clearly established policies and regulations for everything from operating hours to how to handle emergencies. The center should be able to supply you with a written copy of its policies.

11. Healthy Food: If you have to bring your child’s food, find out about the nursery’s guidelines. Some may require you to pack only nutritious foods and that’s okay, because it shows they have your child’s best interests at heart. If the Center provides food, find out what it serves at meal and snack times. Does it encourage healthy eating habits and include all the food groups? Make sure that the staff is aware of any food allergies your child may have and ask how they let all staff members become aware of and remember those.

12. Opportunity for Parents to Observe and Monitor: Many nurseries and day care centers now install video cameras that allow parents to watch their child from a distance. These systems are expensive and will increase the fees you pay, but may be a feature you desire. Having a camera, of course, does not guarantee that there are no problems at the center occurring outside of view. All good nurseries and day care centers should have an open-door policy. Parents should be welcome and encouraged to stop by unannounced at any time. A great nursery will go beyond merely letting you in and will invite you to become part of the community by helping with activities, accompanying the children to special events and field trips, and so on.

13. Specific Questions for Infant Care Centers: Are the staff specially qualified to work with infants? Will your baby have the opportunity to bond with one primary care-giver who will consistently look after him or her? Do you need to bring your own nappies and formula/milk? Is the staff trained in preparing and giving bottles, handling expressed breast milk, spoon-feeding purees and supervising finger foods? Do babies have a safe, quiet place to sleep, preferably away from the play area? Do babies get out for fresh air during the day and how are they transported (ask to see prams and strollers)? Does the baby unit have a set schedule they expect all babies to adapt to, or do they follow each child’s individual sleep and feeding schedule? Are the toys and activities age-appropriate, safe, and selected to stimulate each child’s growth and development? Is there a method of communicating with parents about the baby’s feeding, sleeping, peeing and pooping activities throughout the day?

Searching for the perfect childcare for your precious child can be stressful, so take a deep breath and just take it one step at a time. Fortunately you have lots of options in the UAE, so you should be able to find a place that meets both your needs and your child's. Let us know how your nursery-search goes and what ended up being he deciding factor in your decision. I will be posting one more article on this topic soon: how to handle returning back to work when you are breastfeeding.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

Amy x

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