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How to find good child care (hint: start now!)

Locating a great daycare center or a modern-day Mary Poppins will be a lot easier if you start the search during your pregnancy, when you have the time (and a fog-free head). How to get started:
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Think about what you really want. Make a list of priorities to focus your search, suggests Wendy Sachs, a mom of two and editor in chief of Care.com. For example, are flexible hours very important to you? “I didn’t care if a sitter did the dishes or picked up clutter,” says Jennifer Barsalou, a mom of two in Eagle River, Alaska. “I mainly wanted someone who would engage the baby, singing songs and telling stories. When one prospect showed up with a bag full of books and toys, I knew she was the right one.”

Gather a list of resources. Find out which daycare centers people in your area prefer and call caregiver agencies to check their rates. Although you can’t start interviewing sitters until about a month before you’re ready to hire one—most are eager to start right away—you can scan online message boards and sitter sites to see which have the best candidates.

Scope out daycare centers. Schedule tours and make sure you’re on the wait list, if necessary. Ask the standard questions—the child-to-staff ratio, how the center handles sick children, the staff training—and use your most critical eye. “The directors who gave me tours were polished and charming,” says Deborah Horwitz, a mom of two in Bethesda, Maryland. “But I’d linger in the classrooms and ask caregivers casual questions, like what they did if two or three babies started crying at once. That gave me the best sense of the care my child would receive.”

Ask everyone for referrals. Be shameless! “Weeks before I went back to work, I posted on Facebook that I would be looking for a nanny,” says Ruby Gelman, a mom of one from Reading, Massachusetts. “Turns out a friend of a friend was giving up her sitter because her son was starting school. She was perfect! Finding her early on took a lot of pressure off going back to work.”

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