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A new bill, the Infant and Toddler Care Improvement Act was introduced in Congress recently.  Its purpose is to shine a light on group care for the littlest children and inspire improvements in quality. Improvement is surely needed.

Babies who are in full-time child care are there every weekday, all day long, adding up to about 160 hours each month. Nearly 30% of children who use child care are under age three, and many of these are enrolled in home-based child care where the oversight is less than it is in center-based care. Yet these early years from birth to age 3 are very important to children’s development. Busy parents count on their toddlers’ child care provider to do a good job of caring for their kids and guiding their development.

So is that happening? How good is your baby’s child care? What should you look for?

The quality of child care for babies is often quite low. States typically require one staff member for every four babies, which means caregivers are busy most of the day with custodial care of feeding, diapering, and soothing babies. In many child care facilities, babies aren’t even held to be fed; instead, bottles are propped up and children left on their own.

With so many children to care for staff have little time for learning activities or even for talking one-to-one with small children. Many child care providers use television or DVDs to entertain babies and toddlers despite the fact that screen time is bad for small children and interferes with language development. With many children to care for – as many as seven toddlers per staff member – children tend to hear direct orders like, “Stop that!” “Come back here!” and “No!” more than engaging conversation. Overuse of this “discouraging speech” has been shown to inhibit learning.

In an effort to keep costs down, many child care providers cut corners with infant and toddler care. How can you be certain your child’s care is good enough? Ask yourself these questions:

It’s important to pay attention to child care quality. It’s hard to change providers and we all tend to stick with what we have even if we know it’s not the best. This is okay for your daily coffee shop, maybe. But it’s not okay for where your child spends her precious time.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.