10 Warning Signs of a Bad Daycare (Parent’s Guide)

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I am a writer, but first I am a mom. My children are the most important people in the world to me.

That is why I’ve done extensive research into daycare. Knowing good qualities of daycare is important, but just as important is noticing warning signs of a bad daycare.

*FYI some of the links in this article about “warning signs of a bad daycare” may be affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase we may get a commission (at no extra cost to you). For more info please see our disclaimer.

Signs of a Bad Daycare

1. The Space is Too Small or Overly Crowded

By law, daycares have to have a limit to the number of children per caregiver.

This number varies according to the state and the age group of the child. However, that law does not always cover the number of children in total that can be in any given facility.

The first daycare I visited with my husband, while I was still pregnant with my son, had a nursery that was so tightly packed there was no room to maneuver from crib to crib without going through a labyrinthine maze.

I questioned the massive number of babies in one tiny room and was assured it was fine because they had multiple caregivers assigned to the nursery.

I said it was not fine. It was dangerous and a possible fire hazard to have an overcrowded daycare, not to mention the fact that the children couldn’t possibly receive the individual care they deserved.

Looking for a Good Quality Daycare?

Find an affordable and qualified daycare center that fits your needs.

2. Cleanliness is Not a Priority

I am not a tidy person. As of this moment, I have a spool of yarn, an empty can of soda, three opened pieces of mail and a cat within arm’s reach.

I share this so you know that my standards for cleanliness and hygiene are not unreasonable.

My husband and I visited no less than four daycare providers before we found one that we felt was hygienic enough to care for children.

One had dead flies in a windowsill within reach of small fingers. Another looked as though collecting dust had become a hobby.

A third had carpets that reeked of cigarette smoke. Basic cleanliness can be the difference between children becoming sick at daycare or having a healthy experience.

Related: What Age Does a Child Go to Daycare

3. Administrators and Staff Evade Questions

You deserve to know as much as you can about the daycare your child is attending.

Whether you are on your tour or your child has been at the daycare for months at a time, you have the right to ask questions and receive answers.

Even something as simple as lack of communication should be enough to cause you to re-evaluate your daycare choice.

The daycare director should be easy to reach whenever you need. If they aren’t readily available, that is a red flag.

The only reason a daycare provider may not be available for comments or questions is because they are overwhelmed or have something to hide. Neither is acceptable.

Related: Switch Daycares for These 10 Reasons

4. Your Child is Unhappy

I was very fortunate with my childcare situation. Both my son and my daughter loved their nursery school and couldn’t wait to go back each day.

When I picked them up, they were happy and cheerful. I had no reason to worry.

This wasn’t true for my neighbor whose son was born only one week after my youngest. He was despondent and sullen in the evenings.

He cried every morning when she dropped him off. Soon she learned that he was being bullied by other children and ignored by the daycare staff.

She pulled him out of the facility and placed him in a new environment. His attitude immediately changed.

A child doesn’t always know how to share what they are feeling. A noticeable change in behavior should alert you to need for change.

Related: Nanny vs Daycare: Pros and Cons

5. There is High Staff Turnover

This is one of those red flags that should make you sit up and take immediate notice.

Any place of business with high turnover is not going to have the best service. That’s not unexpected at a fast food place, but it is unacceptable at a daycare facility.

High turnover means staff is unhappy, underpaid or that working conditions are not ideal. None of these factors are good for your child.

They need to be cared for by staff that wants to be there day in and day out. Likewise, children thrive on consistency. New staff on a regular basis is not healthy for their emotional development.

There are administrative issues that accompany high staff turnover as well. Positions that need to be filled rapidly may not be thoroughly vetted.

They also might not receive the training they need to be excellent, or even adequate, at their jobs.

Looking for a Good Quality Daycare?

Find an affordable and qualified daycare center that fits your needs.

6. No Schedule is in Place

A daycare should not be a free-for-all where children are let loose on a pile of toys until they wear themselves out. A quality daycare offers a schedule in which children are given regular access to rotating activities.

A typical day at any daycare might include music, arts and crafts, storytime, nap time, outdoor play, and free play. At various stages of development, children should work on motor skills, language skills, and even reading and writing.

No schedule of any kind is an immediate red flag. Likewise, if your daycare advertises a schedule but doesn’t adhere to it, that is a sign of sloppiness in other areas as well.

7. State Licensing Requirements are Ignored

Familiarize yourself with the licensing requirements for your state. This will help you to see if the facility is doing the bare minimum or less.

Some of the most common requirements involve staffing and safety. For instance, in my state, no more than eight infants under the age of 18 months is allowed in a facility.

My husband and I toured a daycare that had 12 infants in tow. When I questioned this practice, I was assured that they were within guidelines due to some loopholes.

I wasn’t interested in a daycare that tried to skirt the law, and therefore we said goodbye.

Keep in mind that if a daycare tries to evade requirements in one area, they may be skipping them in others that can lead to even more hazards.

8. Children Come Home Dirty or Hungry

A daycare facility will change a baby’s diaper, feed them and clean them when they spit up.

They will ask that you bring multiple changes of clothing so that the child can always be clean. If a daycare runs out of the diapers that you provide, they should use their own stash.

Should they refuse to do so, and leave your child with an unchanged diaper, you should immediately cut ties.

Older children may have accidents. They fall, they spill finger paint or they don’t make it to the restroom in time.

These children should also be cleaned up and helped to change if and when this happens. A daycare that doesn’t consider these factors is unlikely to be fully caring for children.

Likewise, your child should not come home overly hungry. Snack time and lunch time are standard at all quality daycare facilities. Is your child not eating during the day? Find out why.

Looking for a Good Quality Daycare?

Find an affordable and qualified daycare center that fits your needs.

9. They Go On Unapproved Field Trips

The daycare I was most excited about for my firstborn was a home daycare with an individual with excellent references.

She had a nice personality over the phone and seemed to truly love children. Best of all, she lived near our home. My husband and I met her and immediately saw a red flag.

I recognized her as someone who I had seen walking in our neighborhood with several children. However, when we asked her about taking field trips or going on walks.

She said that she never took the children outside of the home except to play in the backyard. When pressed, she admitted that sometimes she took the kids to a local park but it “wasn’t a big deal.” It was to me.

Along with her dishonesty, I needed to know any daycare I chose would fully disclose all information to me. That is especially true when it comes to the whereabouts of my child.

Field trips are excellent for child development, but parents need to be aware of these at all times.

Related: How I Survived Leaving My Child at Daycare the First Time

10. The Environment is Not Safe

Perhaps the biggest red flag of all is a lack of safety. Take a look around the facility upon your first tour. Look at windows and doors to make sure they are closed and guarded.

Look at cabinets and try to open them to make sure they are childproofed.

Ensure that any hazardous materials, like cleaning supplies, are kept firmly away from children. Any outdoor areas should have soft, absorbent materials.

Safety isn’t just material. The process for allowing visitors is an important one. If you find the daycare allows anyone to walk in off the street, you should not use that daycare. Predators can quickly find out that there is a sloppy daycare in their midst.

The nursery school my children attended had a multi-level process for allowing entry. Cameras recorded activity at all doors.

The parent access door was locked with a four-digit code that was changed on a monthly basis. Those parents were then allowed into a vestibule that had yet another locked door, which could only be opened by staff.

Even at release time, children were only released one at a time and only once a staff member had spoken directly to the guardian. Children were not released to anyone who wasn’t pre-approved.

This multi-level approach might seem over-the-top to some, but it was an excellent way to ensure our children were safe at all times.

11. You Have a Bad Feeling About the Daycare

It may be something you can’t quite put your finger on. You simply have a bad feeling about a daycare or an individual employee. Trust your gut. There is no reason to ignore a sense of unease.

My child’s pediatrician told me one time that she trusted a mother’s judgment more than her own when it came to a child’s health and well-being.

Her advice to me, as a new mom, was to always follow my instincts when it came to health or danger. I always have and it hasn’t led me astray yet.

A bad feeling might not be scientific or measurable, but sensing when something is off is a unique gift that a parent has. Don’t ignore it.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Daycare

Final Thoughts

These warning signs of a bad daycare will guide you when you’re considering placing a child in a new daycare or removing them from an existing one.

Do you have an experience with a daycare that didn’t meet your child’s needs? Let us know about it in the comments.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if your daycare is bad?

If your daycare has a poor and unsafe environment or they don’t follow state licensing and safety requirements.

How do you know if your child is unhappy at daycare?

A child that cries a lot when they arrive at daycare or exhibit behavior that is not normal for them but specifically happens when it comes to daycare, could be signs.

Is daycare better than staying at home?

Neither is necessarily worse or better than the other. There are pros and cons to both, and ultimately it’s family dependent. Don’t feel guilty about making either one of those decisions. Make the decision that’s best for your family.

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