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The ABCs of Back-Up Child Care

by Kathy Sena

You’ve got this child-care thing down. Your four year old loves preschool, you have a part-time babysitter for your toddler and your third grader is happily breezing through school. Then something happens. Your preschool director decides to shut down the school with less than two days’ notice (as ours recently did); your babysitter gets sick; your third grader forgets to tell you about that teacher in-service day. And your boss is demanding the XYZ project by 3 p.m. Wednesday — or else.

What do you do? First, don’t wait for the inevitable to happen before making back-up child-care plans, say experienced parents. Start planning now:

Beef up your network
On the Monday after our preschool closed, my friend Judith (hereafter known as “Saint Judith”), already juggling two preschoolers and a home-based business, volunteered to watch four additional kids so other parents could go to work. In return, those parents have come to her aid on other days. To minimize crisis-mode stress, work out such arrangements with friends in advance.

Consider sharing child care
Occasionally sharing a babysitter or nanny with another family, which we did for a few weeks after our preschool went kaput, can benefit everyone. The kids have a play date, the caregiver appreciates the extra income and you don’t have to miss work. Just make sure all parties are satisfied with the agreement.

Check with referral agencies
Carefinder and Child Care Aware (800-424-2246) can help you find a local preschool or child-care center. (At, I typed in my zip code and got a list of 18 nearby preschools. Not bad.) The site also encourages parents to comment on their experience with specific child-care providers. The National Child Care Information Center offers a helpful checklist of questions to ask when visiting child-care centers.

Plan ahead for sick days
While every parent would prefer to be home when a child is sick, it’s good to know there are caring options available in a pinch. Check with your pediatrician or local hospital for a referral for sick-child day care. Many hospitals now have such facilities. The National Association of Sick Child Daycare, a professional organization for the industry, offers some great links to consumer information on this growing area of child care. Just go to and click on “related links.”

Keep safety in mind
In the rush to find appropriate child care when you’re pressed for time, make sure you don’t give safety issues the brush-off. Always check references for care providers. And check your list of potential preschools, child-care centers or in-home care providers with your local licensing board.

Also, remember to check for safety hazards. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 31,000 children ages 4 years and younger were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for injuries that happened in child-care or school settings in 1997. In a recent national study, CPSC staff visited a number of child-care settings and found that two-thirds of them had one or more potentially serious hazards. The CPSC suggests checking the following:

  • CRIBS — Make sure cribs meet current national safety standards and are in good condition. Look for a certification safety seal. Older cribs may not meet current standards. Crib slats should be no more than 2 3/8 inches apart, and mattresses should fit snugly.

  • SOFT BEDDING — Be sure that no pillows, soft bedding or comforters are used where babies are sleeping. A baby should be put to sleep on her back in a crib with a firm, flat mattress.

  • PLAYGROUND SURFACING AND MAINTENANCE— Look for safe surfacing on outdoor playgrounds; at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel, or mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like material. Check playground surfacing and equipment regularly to make sure they are maintained in good condition.

  • SAFETY GATES — Be sure that safety gates are used to keep children away from potentially dangerous areas, especially stairs.

  • WINDOW BLINDS AND CURTAIN CORDS — Be sure miniblinds and venetian blinds do not have looped cords. Check that vertical blinds, continuous looped blinds and drapery cords have tension or tie-down devices to hold the cords tight.

  • RECALLED PRODUCTS - Check that no recalled products are being used and that a current list of recalled children's products is readily visible. Displaying a list of recalled products will remind caretakers and parents to remove or repair potentially dangerous children's toys and products.

Also see:
Guide to child care options
Cybercams in day care
Sick day savvy: Take care of your career and your child

Kathy Sena is a freelance writer who frequently covers family issues.

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