Preparing in advance is a great way to assure parents get the proper care for their children, said Margaret Franklin, bureau chief of the Bureau of Child Care in Jefferson City.
"They're your most valuable possessions and you should take time to find out where that child will spend nine to 10 hours a day and check it out," Franklin said.
Parents may also have to take time from work to look for a child care provider, and some parents, especially new ones, might even do it when they're still pregnant, Franklin said, adding it's also a good time to get on waiting list, if needed.
"The top questions on the list are when you walk in the door, you should ask yourself, 'What's the atmosphere like? How clean is it? Does it smell?'" said Jo Medlock, occupational child care teacher for Sikeston Public Schools Child Care.
Watch the staff with the children and see how they interact, Medlock suggested. Check to see if there's some sort of written policy that lets parents know what's expected of them and what's expected from the child care provider, she said.
"Look at the kids. Are they having fun? Are they playing or sitting in front of TV?" Medlock said.
Jenny Jenkins, director of Care A Lot Learning Center in Kelso, said of course cost is always an issue with parents looking for a child care provider. But they also are interested in whether the center is state licensed or accredited, she said.
"State licensing is a set of goals the state makes that you must go by and accreditation is a step above that," Jenkins explained.
Accreditation is a sign of excellence, Medlock said.
"Providers have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops to get accredited, and you will not find many that are accredited," Medlock said.
Some parents will also ask what training the teachers have and if a center is getting accredited, all of the teachers must have a Child Development Associate license, Jenkins said.
Among questions parents should also ask is to see the provider's menu to know what food is served.
"You want to make sure they're not eating hot dogs and macaroni every day," Jenkins said.
Medlock recommended checking references of a prospective provider.
"Parents should see if their values match -- how do they feel about discipline and how do they learn and all of those things that are important to a parent should be important to the provider," Medlock said.
Ask about the daily schedule and how they keep track of who's in and out of the buildings, Franklin suggested.
"It's crucial parents go and visit a provider, and read the public record licensing," Franklin said.
Public records can show fire safety inspections and environmental inspections. Local offices are in Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff, and the state Bureau of Child Care is working toward a Web base.
According to state regulations, the staff-child ratios for center child care are: infants, 1:4; toddlers, 1:8; preschool, 1:10; school age, 1:16, and the ratio for family child care is infants, 1:4 and all ages 1:10.
Typically, if everything is going well, a licensed child care provider receives four inspections in a year: one from fire safety division, one from environmental safety and two from state staff. If there are concerns, the state will visit more often.
If a parent ever has a problem with a provider, the Bureau of Child Care first recommends talking with those involved. If nothing is resolved, then parents are encouraged to contact the Bureau, Franklin said.
"If parents have a sense something's not right, it's definitely worth talking about," Franklin said.
The state can also provide parents a copy of child care provider rules, Franklin said. The Bureau of Child Care and Department of Health and Human Services will send packets that provide lists and information about child care providers in Missouri, she said.
Franklin and Medlock pointed out parents may want to contact the state Child Care Resource and Referral Agency to locate child care providers in their area. The referral agency also connects parents with a provider that services special needs children.
Jenkins pointed out it's important for parents to find a good center for their child. She explained: "Because ultimately we are the ones spending the most of the time with their children and have them all day."
For a registry of local child care facilities, contact the Child Care Resource and Referral of Southeast Missouri, located on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University, at 1-800-811-1127.