Save. Spend. Splurge.

What to look for in a daycare

I got this as an Ask Sherry question but it turned into a post because it was way too long.

What are some of the qualities you look for in a frugal daycare? What are your non-negotiables and what are some things you are willing to do without?

We went to every single daycare with a pre-printed “Daycare” checklist with the following information in boxes and would make notes or check off “YES” / “NO” each time we came across something.

In general

  1. Cost per day (obviously) + other costs
  2. Full-time availability for the date we wanted to start
  3. Can bring our own food for him
  4. Cloth diapering
  5. Drop times
  6. French 100% immersion (teachers and preferably, French playmates too)
  7. Proximity to our home
  8. Parking situation
  9. Activities they do
  10. Discipline
  11. Skills learned
  12. Number of kids per worker

Cost per day (obviously) + other costs

Within reason of course, most daycares hovered around the $39 – $75 range. Obviously the cheaper ones had priority but not above the others things taken into consideration.

We wanted to know how much they charged and what was included in that charge — a lunch, two snacks, etc.

Other activities and outings like going to the pumpkin patch would obviously be extra.

Full-time availability for the date we wanted to start

If they weren’t available for X date, they were put on the bottom of the list. Time was a priority, as we needed to start at the latest by X date.

Can bring our own food for him

This was kind of a non-negotiable, but if we had no alternative, we would have taken it as-is.

I saw what they fed the kids there (and even sat there a few times as I went with Baby Bun for activities), and gluey grey mashed potatoes, ketchup and boxed burgers was not appetizing.

That is not “cooking”, that’s assembling and heating up.

You can read my guest post on Distant Francophile where I talked a little bit about the food aspect of daycare searching.

I also saw a few times they suggested ice cream as treats for kids on Friday but I refused to participate because our philosophy on sweets is that it is for special occasions and events (not just because it’s Friday) and we don’t do that at home, so I didn’t want to start it.

It is fine if in the future he has it ONCE in a while for a special event at school but not as a regular, weekly thing.

Cloth diapering

This was one of our major non-negotiable points at the time but if NO daycare took cloth diapering, we would have gone with one of them with disposables.

Drop times

Some places charge a fee of $10 for every minute you late. MINUTE. Yes. MINUTE.

I wanted to know their drop times and although I was not planning on ever, EVER being late, I wanted to know what it may cost me if I was stuck in traffic and late.

Usually they start at 7 a.m. and end by 6 p.m. I never used the whole time range, but I liked having that buffer.

French 100% immersion (teachers and preferably, French playmates too)

This was a nice to have, not a mandatory thing.

Baby Bun learns a lot of English as-is because he is home with me full-time, and we speak English as a family, so it is clear it is his dominant language. I would (now) look for a place that would enforce full French so he catches up.

Proximity to our home

A non-negotiable.

We needed it as close as possible so we would be able to drop off easily and avoid bridges or traffic, and be able to pick him up and come home without being stuck again in traffic.

Parking situation

A non-negotiable. We needed a place that would have SAFE PLACES TO PARK to unload and offload a child.

No parent seemed to ever think about this whom we talked to, but we’re obviously freaks who are perfectionists. We checked to make sure there was ample parking spots in SAFE AREAS (not on a busy highway-like road, but in a parking lot for instance), where we could pull over, park safely, get out and unbuckle him, or load him in.

If there were NO OTHER alternatives with daycares that had safe drop off roundabouts off the road, or parking lots to drive and quickly park in to drop off, then 2 major things we would have looked out for were:

Is the road too busy in front where the parking is?

Are there constant, oncoming cars going faster to get around these open car doors of parents trying to load and unload kids? ONE FALSE step, one slight second of distraction and your toddler could dart out between the cars to run towards someone he plays with, and get hit by a car who is not expecting anyone to walk out in front.

I always try to drive like a SNAIL around these daycare places and the roads because I can imagine Baby Bun doing this exact, horrifying situation, but not everyone is as conscientious, unfortunately, no matter what you do, unless you put huge, huge speed bumps in a row in front of the daycare itself.

In winter, would there be ANY spots to drop them off?

Snow removal is a serious business here. Just as we saw with Stella, the few days following the heavy, unprecedented snowfall, meant that there were snowbanks as high as 8′ or 9′ from snow plows trying to clear the roads.

In that time people may or may not be going to work, and where are they going to park if the road is completely blocked and no one can squeeze through?

No one considers the snow, but not only is it hard to wrangle a mini Michelin-man-like toddler out of the backseat, it is even harder to do it in nice fancy work clothes (snow boots or not), while slipping on ice and snow.


You could fall, drop your child, slide under an oncoming car, whatever. This is the stuff parenting nightmares are made of.

Activities they do

Honestly, what they do there doesn’t concern me as much because… they’re kids. They’ll just play together, quietly or not, but as long as they weren’t plunked in front of a TV or an iPad for 8 hours a day, I was good.


Never really worried about this one either. Daycare workers are very kind, great people, and I did observe a few times (unnoticed by them), that they would quietly get down and tell the kids they were making them sad by acting that way.

The manners and discipline were never a problem in any daycare I visited (you need to boss 16 toddlers around, so you learn some tricks quickly), but I did make a mental note when I observed how they were disciplined and corralled.

Skills learned

Kids learn fine and major motor skills… and languages, etc. Again, less interested in this part. He will learn that stuff eventually as I take him to the parks and he picks it up.

So what if he is slower in climbing stairs versus other kids? We don’t have stairs, so that stands to reason.

Number of kids per worker

With diapering, it is tough. Diaper rashes, skin problems, are all things every child goes through constantly at daycare.

NO daycare I have ever been to, has ever changed a child more than twice in a day. There are usually 16 kids per worker in the cheaper daycares and even in the more expensive ones, NO ONE wants to change diapers all day.

If they did, they’d be changing them forever.

They prefer disposable diapers for this reason — they last 3-4 hours in a wet diaper and they don’t care if you get a rash or not, they just slap on that bum cream to prevent against it, much like injecting antibiotics and drugs to cattle as a preventative measure to stop diseases from cropping up in the first place, even though, paradoxically, doing so could make the bacteria become immune to the antibiotics and make the cow sicker. Listen to the TED talk about Medical Miracles turning into a Global Threat for more on how antibiotics are being overused and could cause a healthepidemic.

Obviously if they poo, they’ll change them… if they smell or get around to it (OR NOT!!!! O_o), and when I sent Baby Bun with 6 diapers a day (I changed him vigilantly at home), he would come back with 4 unused.

They change them once in the morning before lunch, and a second time after their nap, usually just before the parents come, normally around 4 p.m. That’s it.

There’s not much I could do unless you get a full-time nanny devoted to your child. I just made sure that I sent him with as dry of a diaper as possible and changed him IMMEDIATELY when we got home, and have lots of free bum time on the weekends and at night.


Again, if the daycares did not have these non-negotiables, we would have just picked the best of them with the mix available, but in order it looks like this:

Ranked Mandatory Requirements

The three bolded at the top were truly major priorities.

  1. Full-time availability for the date we wanted to start
  2. Proximity to our home
  3. Parking situation
  4. Cost per day (obviously) + other costs
  5. Can bring our own food for him
  6. Cloth diapering

The rest were nice to have.

Hope that helped!


  • Sarah

    Thanks! This post was very useful. The parking/safety thing was something I didn’t consider. The two big things I wasn’t sure about were -1) The importance of the program 2) food plan. For 1), most daycares have some kind of program that develops kids social, motor, and cognitive skills. So it didn’t seem necessary to pay more for this. I was definitely worried about food because the cheaper places tend to have food that looked like it came from a kid’s menu in a restaurant and the pricey places have food with diverse flavors and organic vegetables. Being able to pack our food would definitely be a fix to 2).

    • Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

      The parking/safety thing is just us being paranoid parents, but it has been a real issue that I am glad we prioritized particularly since it gets very snowy here.

      I think for education up until high school, it isn’t that important as long as they get the basics down and are self-starters.

      The food, was a real concern of ours…

  • Bonnie

    Great tips. From what age to what age was Baby Bun in a daycare setting?

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *