When it comes to child care, there is no “right” choice, no one-size-fits-all option, which can feel both liberating and daunting to new and experienced parents alike. Confusing star ratings, online reviews, opinions of friends and family and waiting lists a mile long can make the process even more difficult. In this article, find expert tips, read about the experiences of real local moms and learn about the most important things to consider when seeking care. Also, don't forget to check out our guide to child care providers in OKC.
Carrie Williams understands the daunting task of finding child care. Not only is she a mother herself, but sitting in her office at Rainbow Fleet, phones ring all around her. On the other end of those lines are parents hoping to connect to Rainbow Fleet’s referral specialists who will help them find the best child care.
“Picking care is so tough,” said Williams, who’s the executive director of Rainbow Fleet, a nonprofit that connects parents to child care resources. “Of course parents want something that’s safe, but beyond quality, they have to think about how far away the center is, what type of kids are there, the food they’ll be served, if it’s a positive learning environment. And then if all that checks out, can they afford it?”
Rainbow Fleet was founded in 1972 to connect families and child care providers with innovative child development resources. Among a host of other child development programs, Rainbow Fleet’s referral specialists, who all hold degrees in childhood education, are available via phone or online to help families find their best child care match. Their services are completely free for families.
Rainbow Fleet meticulously keeps an up-to-date list of licensed child care facilities and in-home care providers in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, ensuring families have accurate, comprehensive information when selecting child care. Referral specialists help parents clarify their child care needs, understand the types of care available and become well-informed, quality-conscious consumers. While recommendations from family and friends are important, the all-encompassing nature of Rainbow Fleet’s list of child care providers means parents have greater access to all their choices.
“There could be a highly-rated in-home facility just down the street from you, that you’d never know about without speaking to one of our referral specialists,” Williams said.
Safety is the top priority for most parents when selecting child care, according to Williams. Rainbow Fleet only refers families to licensed child care providers, so families can feel confident that the referrals they receive are meeting state health, safety and caregiver training standards. Williams stresses that parents should always check a facility’s licensing record before placing their child in that home or center; records can be accessed at www.okdhs.org/child care. Rainbow Fleet also provides parents with each facility’s Oklahoma Department of Human Services star rating.
Rainbow Fleet doesn’t make specific recommendations for individual daycare centers or in-home facilities; rather, referral specialists help parents determine what type of care is the best fit for their child or children.
“Our referral specialists spend a lot of time discussing each child’s individual needs,” said Williams. “One child might thrive in a large learning environment, whereas another might do better with more one-on-one attention. We help parents really think through their options, and we can steer them toward a specific type of care depending on the child’s needs.”
Rainbow Fleet tailors referrals based on the age of your child, the days and hours you need care, your child’s personality, the location most convenient for you and your specific budget. Referral specialists can also provide custom referrals for children with special needs, like dietary restrictions or developmental delays. While the online tool is easy to use and offers instant results, Williams recommends calling a referral specialist to talk through options as well, especially for first-time parents, many of whom don’t realize how quickly they need to start their child care search.
“Homes and centers alike often have long waiting lists,” said Williams. “We can help parents begin their child care research process earlier in pregnancy, and we can help them get their names on waiting lists.”
Whether parents use the online tool (www.rainbowfleet.org) or call in to speak to a referral specialist (521-1426), they will receive a parent packet in the mail with information about the types of care available and the steps to choosing quality child care.
Next page: real local moms weigh in about the pros and cons of a child care center compared to in-home care or a nanny service.
Child Care Center
- Provide care for eight or more children and operate for more than 30 hours per week.
- Must be licensed by OKDHS.
- Often selected by parents because larger groups, multiple caregivers and state inspections make programs feel more safe for children and make the arrangement more dependable.
- Parents may also believe more space, equipment, toys and organized activities can provide better learning environments for their children.
- In Oklahoma County, the average weekly rate for child care centers for ages 0 to just under 5 years is $146.58.
Katie Green is a project manager and mom to 5-month-old Harper. She and her husband chose a daycare facility because they value a continuum of care that isn’t interrupted if a primary child care provider is sick or goes on vacation. Green appreciates that Harper’s caregivers will text with her, even on nights and weekends, to discuss Harper’s current needs and how they can best care for her.
For an infant in particular, Green recommends asking potential daycare options whether they will follow the child’s individual feeding schedule, what items are provided versus what parents must supply and what activities they provide for stimulation and development. Katie also advocates reviewing each potential facility’s DHS rating and reports.
“We toured each facility and showed up at random times, even if the facility said to schedule an appointment to tour,” Green said. “We were better able to tell which places we could trust.”
For dental hygienist Lacey Link, mom to 2-year-old Brooks and 10-month-old Laney, a daycare center works best for her family’s two busy work schedules, which vary from week to week, and provides her children a strong foundation for future learning. She appreciates that from an early age, they are both challenged academically and taught about giving back to the community.
Link values receiving a daily report about her children via email, and she also gets photos and videos throughout the day.
“It makes me happy at work to know what my kids are doing and to see how happy they are to be there,” she said.
She and her husband asked a lot of questions of their potential facility choices, including what type of curriculum is used, the teacher to child ratios, how much physical activity the children would get, what type of meals they serve and their severe weather precautions.
Katie Brinlee is an accounting supervisor and mom to 4-year-old Hayden and 15-month-old Noah. She and her husband both work long hours and needed a daycare center that could accommodate their work weeks and was convenient to their places of business. A large daycare center means her children have an on-site nurse for quick care emergencies, an onsite underground tornado shelter, multiple outdoor play areas, quality curriculum and bachelor’s degrees for all lead teachers.
Important factors to Brinlee in choosing a daycare facility were how long teachers had been employed, the curriculum used, child to teacher ratios, meal plans, the type of discipline used and the priority of child safety. She appreciates that her daycare is used to and willing to work with parents on redirecting typical toddler misbehavior in a loving way. She also values an iPhone app she can access that tracks her boys’ activities, what they ate and if they napped.
Becky Endicott works as a director of development and is mom to 4-year-old Sophia and 1-year-old Julia. Using a daycare center located at her place of business has afforded her convenience, access to her girls during the workday and the added benefits of activities like dance and music offered onsite. Endicott’s proximity allows her to attend holiday parties or special recitals, get to her girls quickly when they are sick or take diapers or supplies over if they run out.
“It’s allowed me to take Sophie to lunch every Tuesday because we are so close,” she said. “There is absolutely no replacement for the memories we are building together during that time. Also, it allowed me to breastfeed Julia on my lunch break every day when she started there. This gave us special one-on-one time every day and eased my transition back into the office.”
Endicott also appreciates that Sophia has been prepared for organized school, learning how to follow instructions, help around her classroom, follow a lesson plan and the basics of colors, counting and spelling.
Endicott and her husband asked questions about how their girls would receive individualized attention, if they would help potty train when the girls were ready, what curriculum was offered, how often they would play outside, what nap time is like, and how they documented and reported back to them what the girls did during day.
Next page: real local moms weigh in about the pros and cons of in-home care compared to a child care center or a nanny service.
Family Child Care Home
- Residential homes providing care for seven or fewer children (or 12 or fewer children for Large Family Child Care Homes).
- Must be licensed through DHS.
- Parents often choose in-home care because they want to keep their children in a home-like environment and feel their children are healthier and more secure in a smaller group.
- In Oklahoma County, the average rate for family child care homes for ages 0 to just under 5 years is $124.18 per week.
For DHS-Child Welfare Services program supervisor Jennifer Brown, mom to 3-year-old Caroline, an in-home child care center provides the loving, family atmosphere she wanted for her daughter. Highly recommended to her by friends, the child care home provides fresh, home-cooked meals, lessons on numbers, letters and colors, plenty of outdoor playtime and life skills like helping clean up and forming long-term bonds.
“The caregivers get down on the kids’ level and really listen to what the kids are saying, which I know makes Caroline feel like what she has to say is important and she feels valued,” she said.
Brown recommends asking potential in-home centers their protocol if a caregiver is sick; in her case, she appreciates that two alternative caregivers are available when needed. She also recommends asking about turnover, of the children as well as the caregivers.
“I didn’t want a place where children didn’t stay long,” she said, “and my child would be forming a relationship with another child who would move.”
Erin Engelke works as a chief external relations officer and is mom to 9-year-old Gabriel, 7-year-old Ava and 4-year-old Elin. The ages of her children mean they employ a combination of child care options. Older children Gabriel and Ava attend an after-care program through their elementary school, while youngest daughter Elin attends the same in-home facility her siblings attended when they were younger. In the evenings and on weekends, Erin also relies upon the support of a “manny,” or male nanny.
“If we are going to be a two-parent working household, it is paramount that we feel confident and comfortable with where and who is caring for our children, and that they are being loved and nurtured just as we would love and nurture them,” she said.
Engelke and her husband chose an in-home provider because they wanted their children’s care to mirror what it would look like if they were home with them. They got recommendations from friends and online resources, and their biggest considerations were the comfort level of the individual caring for their children, the atmosphere of the facility, the location of the provider to their home and the cost of care. They paid careful attention to the location of sleeping quarters/cribs, the amount of space for play indoors and out, whether care included meals and snacks, and how many days the facilities were closed during the year.
She appreciates that her in-home provider knows her daughter’s likes and dislikes, can console her when she is upset, provides daily educational and development opportunities, reads books and encourages outdoor play.
“With three children having gone through child care over the past 10 years, I can confidently say that there’s no perfect scenario,” Engelke said. “What’s most important is finding the scenario that works best for you and your family, but also allows your children to flourish and for you to accomplish what you need to professionally.”
Next page: real local moms weigh in about the pros and cons of a nanny service compared to a child care center or in-home care.
Care provided in the child’s home.
Certification can be required depending on whether the nanny uses an agency for referrals.
Oklahoma does not regulate nanny-placement agencies or in-home caregivers. The family is responsible for criminal history checks, wage and hour requirements, payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance.
Parents often choose a nanny because they feel children are more secure in their own home environment and they have more control over the kind of care their children receive.
While Rainbow Fleet doesn’t endorse either, they direct families interested in finding a nanny to collegenanniesandtutors.com and sittercity.com. According to sittercity.com, nannies in Oklahoma City charge anywhere from $10 to $30 per hour, depending on the number of children in their care, ages of children and additional services required, like laundry or meal preparation.
For registered nurse Carley McLaughlin, mom to 23-month-old Tripp and 7-month-old Quinn, a nanny means her young children’s needs are carefully met, her children experience less illness and she enjoys greater flexibility for her working schedule. McLaughlin is appreciative of her nanny’s ability to keep in contact with her throughout the day, sending pictures and letting her know how they are doing.
“Our daughter has GI issues and needs more individualized care,” McLaughlin said. “Our nanny is very flexible with us and comes over early if my husband is traveling, as I have to leave very early for work, earlier than many daycare centers open. I know my children are safe in their own environment and get to stick to their schedules seven days a week.”
McLaughlin and her husband recommend asking candidates extensive questions about their vehicles and driving records, especially if the nanny will be transporting children, including: the current condition of the vehicle, the maintenance schedule, quality of the tires and the number of wrecks both the nanny and the vehicle have been in.
For McLaughlin and her husband who typically must go to work even when the weather is dicey, they also wanted to know their nanny would be able to come to work regardless of the weather. They were sticklers about CPR and first aid certification, and they wanted to know about candidates’ experience caring for multiple small children at once, presenting interviewees specific scenarios in which both children need something at the same time and asking how the caregivers would respond.
Engineer Meredith Schneberger, mom to 7-year-old Jackson, 3-year-old Mitchell and 21-month-old Carter, uses multiple types of care, including a nanny, after-school care for her oldest and a Mother’s Day Out program several days a week for her two youngest.
“My hope was to find a balance between interaction with other kids and a structured classroom experience, and making sure my children got enough rest and downtime to stay healthy,” she said.
Her boys’ nanny takes them to school, keeps them when school is out, starts dinner in the evenings and helps with dishes. She takes them on outings to the library and ensures they get adequate rest at home. At her youngest boys’ Mother’s Day Out, they play inside and out, are learning sign language and enjoy frequent art projects.
Because it’s important to Schneberger to minimize screen time, she values that they don’t watch television at Mother’s Day Out. She appreciates that her boys’ teachers regularly communicate with her, even though she is rarely the one who drops off or picks them up. She stresses the importance of giving constructive feedback to caregivers to ensure children are cared for in the way you want, and she believes good caregivers appreciate being part of the parenting team.
“I feel like my kids have a routine that includes a lot of play and a lot of people who love them and look out for them,” she said. “I think it’s important that moms not settle for child care situations they aren’t happy with.”
While in-home care can mean a nanny, it can also mean care by a grandparent or relative. Account director Amy Blackburn, mom to 8-month-old Everly, chose what she calls “the best of both worlds” for her daughter, three days a week at a daycare facility and two days a week with Blackburn’s mom.
“We love that Everly gets to socialize at daycare, but we also value the time she gets to spend with her grandparents,” she said.
When reviewing potential daycare options, Blackburn and her husband toured each facility and researched any violations with OKDHS. The most important factors to them were that the facility was clean and fostered a learning, creative environment. She values that her daycare facility sends photos and texts throughout her workday to keep her apprised of Everly’s activities.
Making the choice
Finding child care can seem like an overwhelming task, but a tailored referral list from a service like Rainbow Fleet and recommendations from fellow moms can make it manageable. Though we moms we often let the guilt and pressure of finding just the right caregiver for our children take over, business owner Erica Carr offers a heart-warming perspective.
“I love that I can leave my children in a loving environment where they can thrive and grow outside the home,” Carr said. “It’s so refreshing when they come home and tell me about all the fun things they learned that day.”
Next page: What does the OKDHS Star Rating mean?
According to Williams, nearly 70 percent of homes have two parents who work at least part time, which has led to a jump in the number of kids in child care. Oklahoma is No. 1 in the nation in kids enrolled in preschool, which Williams says is reflective of parents in our communities expecting much more than just babysitters. Parents want learning environments that meet children’s developmental needs. The rise in the number of children in child care and parents’ increasing desire for enrichment for their children means the call for quality child care is also on the rise.
Oklahoma’s child care rating and improvement system is called “Reaching for the Stars” and is used to help parents evaluate child care and encourage continuous improvement among caregivers. Programs are ranked from one to three stars, and the ratings are based on: compliance with licensing regulations, education and training of caregivers, enriched learning environments for children, family engagement, administrative practices and participation in national accreditation programs. All licensed child care programs in Oklahoma automatically earn one star, and a program must meet all criteria at one level before moving up to the next.
One Star Programs:
- Have a license
- Will have unannounced inspections at least three times per year
- Have basic standards for health and safety and limits on the number of children in care
- Caregivers undergo criminal background checks, have at least a GED and earn at least 12 hours of training per year
One Star Plus Programs:
- Meet all one star requirements and are working toward two star rating
- Have higher education and training requirements for caregivers
- Offer enriched learning environments for children, including lesson plans, outdoor play and reading to children daily
- Have family engagement and communication systems in place
- Have a membership on a professional development registry
Two Star Programs:
- Meet all one star and one star plus requirements
- In child care centers, one master teacher is employed for every 20 children; all family child care providers meet the same requirements as master teachers
- Master teachers have 15 college credit hours in early childhood education or have completed an approved credentialing program
- Have higher training requirements for caregivers
- Include enriched interest centers for children
- Complete a program assessment as part of the program evaluation process
- Have improved family engagement and communication, as well as administrative practices
Three Star Programs:
- Meet all one star, one star plus, two star requirements AND are accredited by an approved accrediting body