Parents looking for just the right day-care situation for their infants are likely to come face to face with a number of concerns.
''Probably the most fearful thought for the mother is, 'What's going to happen to my attachment to my child?' '' says researcher Diane Adams. ''Well, recent studies can assure her that day care won't destroy that relationship.''
According to Ms. Adams, a research fellow with the Bush Institute for Child and Family Policy at the University of North Carolina, the most important qualities to look for in infant day care are continuity and stability.
''The worst thing that can happen to young children is to switch them from provider to provider,'' she continues. ''That's why it's important to make a decision carefully and to consider all the pros and cons. For example, the best thing about good family day care is that a child can stay there until he reaches school age, while the best thing about day-care centers is that with the range of services available, children can move from infant-toddler programs into preschool programs with little discontinuity.''
An estimated 8 million preschoolers are already in day care nationwide. While 1 million are enrolled in centers, some 3.5 million stay with relatives during the day, and the remaining 3.5 million are cared for in family day-care homes. At a time when state licensing agencies are taking over from federal regulators and often requiring better facilities and programs of day-care providers, parents are also addressing increasingly tougher questions to the people who will be responsible for their children.
''Parents used to be very frightened and timid about looking into day care,'' Ms. Adams notes. ''But today we're definitely seeing more sophisticated parents who are comfortable asking consumer-type questions.''
Local child care information and referral services often hold seminars and information sessions where parents can find out about the kinds of questions they should ask a prospective care provider. Also helpful are city and state licensing agencies, elementary and preschool teachers, and sometimes personnel departments at work.
''We advise parents to look at the provider, at the physical setting, and at the opportunities offered the children,'' says Lorna Aaronson of Community Coordinated Child Care in Madison, Wis.
As parents explore the options available, the following issues usually rank among their most important concerns:
Studies show that the staff-child ratio for infants and toddlers is crucial. This ratio can be a plus for day-care centers where there usually is one staff member assigned to every three infants and one to every four toddlers.
Although two frequently mentioned drawbacks of family day care are its reliance on one person and the lack of built-in mechanisms for supervising staff , many providers insist that their arrangements are adequate. ''I take care of 10 children and have two helpers to assist me and give me some flexibility,'' says Ruby Brunson, acting chairwoman of the newly formed National Family Day Care Network. ''I also advise other providers to have regular standby persons who will come into their homes from time to time to keep up with their operation.''
''There's a cultural bias that says if children stay in someone's home, it's more like being home with mom,'' notes Robert Lurie, executive director of Summit Child Care Center in New Jersey. ''But the things that can be construed as being homelike can be built into day-care centers - things like smallness of scale, softness, children of different ages mingling together, an intimate relationship with one person.''
Many of the large for-profit day-care chains feature carefully designed developmental programs for children which are organized at the home office and disseminated to member centers. But as local and state family day-care associations grow in numbers and sophistication, local providers are coming up with equally effective learning programs.
''In family day care you can find everything from people doing custodial care to those who are running their own private preschool programs,'' says Ms. Brunson of the National Family Day Care Network.
''To provide an all-day program for infants would cost parents $90-$95 a week , and that's quite frankly why we only start taking kids at two years old,'' says Doug Carneal, a regional director for Children's World. Similar ''prohibitive costs'' are cited by other day-care chains which don't yet offer services for infants and toddlers. Those centers that do enroll infants may charge between $70 and $95 a week. Family day care, on the other hand, generally ranges from $40 to $70 a week.