What to Look For in a Home-Based Care

children at home careAs we’ve written about in another post, daycares and preschools can be divided into two broad categories: center-based and home-based (also known as family child cares). Home-based cares are on average less expensive than centers, though the size of the difference can vary from city to city. Additionally, they can provide an intimate, secure environment for children in smaller mixed-age groups, with more flexible hours.

However, because licenses for home-based cares are relatively easy to obtain (proprietors only need to meet basic health and safety requirements), and also because home-based facilities are less regulated compared to center-based facilities, parents need to take a very active role in evaluating home-based providers. Here’s our checklist to feel confident that you’ve found a high quality provider:

  1. Tour the facility to get comfortable with the caregiving environment. Which areas are accessible to children and which areas are off limits?
  2. Besides the primary caregiver, ask what other adults, such as assistants and family members, are present during care hours. Also inquire if there are any pets.
  3. Find out what the maximum child-to-adult ratio and whether that is maintained throughout the day.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the daily schedule and what activities children participate in.
  5. Review the background and qualifications of the provider. How much experience do they have? How have they furthered their professional development through training and education?
  6. Learn about the provider’s communication style (frequency, phone/email/text/written summaries, etc.), and think about whether it matches your needs.
  7. Review the enrollment contract and school policies.
  8. Speak with three to five parents of current or past attendees as references.
  9. Review the licensing record of the provider and address any citations or complaints.

Below, we cover some basics about home-based cares and what this means for parents as they evaluate providers.  Note that each state has its own licensing standards, but for simplicity, we reference California here.

What is a home-based care?

Home-based cares are daycares or preschools based out of the provider’s home. Home-based cares are sometimes started by parents who wish to care for their own children at home and who decide to enroll additional children to increase earnings or to create a larger peer group for the children. In other cases, experienced nannies or preschool teachers wish to start their own business.

What does it take to get a home-based child care license?

In most states, home-based facilities must abide by basic regulations to ensure the health and safety of the children in order to obtain a license. With some exceptions (for example in California, providers caring for only one outside family’s children are exempt from licensing), all home-based daycares and preschools need to be licensed..

Requirements differ slightly from state to state. In California, home-based providers must attend an orientation and undergo 15 hours of training in preventative health practices, which includes first-aid and CPR. Their homes must also pass an inspection to ensure they are safe and child-friendly. Inspectors check for a neat and clean environment, clean and safe toys, a working telephone and smoke alarm, and for potentially hazardous materials. After a provider is licensed, the state continues to perform unannounced inspections as frequent as once a year to once every five years. For all guidelines, see the pre-licensing readiness guide for home-based cares.

In addition to creating a safe environment, providers must notify parents if any child becomes injured in their care or if there is dangerous activity near the home, such as gun violence or illegal drug use. Providers are also responsible for ensuring that each child meets vaccination requirements (see our post about the recent change to acceptable exemptions to child vaccination) and to respect the rights of each child, which include the right to be treated with dignity and not to be subjected to physical or unusual punishment. Check out CDSS’s Licensing Regulation Highlights for a summary of licensing requirements.

How many children can a home-based provider care for?

Depending on the ages of the children, a small home-based provider can care for a maximum of eight children, while a large home-based provider can care for up to 14.

How do I assess the quality of a home-based provider’s program?

Licensing requirements give little to no guidance on program quality beyond basic health and safety. As a parent, this means that you must find out for yourself the provider’s educational approach, how this approach translates into the daily schedule of activities, and how the program will progress as your child develops. A few signs to look for:

  • Though rare, some providers are accredited by organizations such as the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC), which indicates they have met additional quality requirements.
  • What are the qualifications of the provider? Do they have experience at another facility, coursework in early childhood education, or other professional development?
  • What is the daily schedule and are the activities varied and stimulating?
  • What outings, field trips, or classes (music, foreign language, gymnastics, etc.) supplement daily activities?

What is an enrollment contract?

An enrollment contract is a written agreement that you, as a parent, will follow the provider’s policies. These policies may include hours of care, the child or children whom the provider will care for, rates, payment method and schedule, sick and vacation policies (for both the provider and the child), absence policies, substitute care, parent involvement, meals, and supplies. Make sure to carefully review the enrollment contract to be aware of the provider’s expectations, especially if your child has special requirements. For instance, if your child has dietary needs, will the provider plan accordingly or will you have to provide the meals? If your child is not toilet trained, will the caregiver provide diapers or will you have to supply them? If your child is absent, does the provider still expect to be paid? Reading and discussing the enrollment contract with the provider will minimize the chance of future misunderstandings and disagreements.

What are my rights as a parent?

Licensed caregivers follow certain rules and agree to the list of parent rights. These include the right to enter and inspect the provider’s home during hours of operation, issue complaints against the provider without affecting the care of your child, and review reports of previous complaints against the provider within the last three years.

How do I look up a provider’s license?

For all providers signed up with NurtureList, you can look up their license information on their profiles. Simply click on the “License” tab at the top of the page, which will bring you to the”License Information” section, where the provider’s license type and number is listed. Clicking on their number, circled in red, will open up a new window and bring you to the provider’s licensing profile on the California  Department of Social Services (CDSS) site. There you can view the provider’s history of inspections, citations, and complaints, which can provide valuable information and raise potential red flags if there is an unusually large number of citations and complaints.

Finding daycare license number

Daycare inspection citation complaint
An inspection report from the California Community Care Licensing website.

What is a citation and how seriously should I take it?

A citation is a violation of regulations intended to protect the rights and safety of children in a home-based care. Citations range in seriousness from Type A (poses a danger to the immediate health, safety, or personal rights of children, and range from not having a working telephone to having contaminated food or lack of appropriate medical care) to Type C (does not pose immediate danger but reflect carelessness or problems with the facility’s plan of operation, and range from missing items in the first aid kit to failure to seek approval for minor structural changes in the house). For more on citations and facility evaluations, read pages 18-22 in this guide.

When operating a daycare over an extended period of time, it’s often inevitable to run into an occasional citation or complaint. Childcare can be stressful, and infrequent mistakes and misunderstandings can be expected. However, most issues are resolved by communication between the parent and provider without escalating to a formal complaint with the state agency, especially if a provider is good at managing relationships with parents. If a provider has multiple citations or complaints on their record, be sure to discuss these with the provider. If necessary, you can contact the California licensing office and inquire about the specifics of the complaints (but be ready to play phone tag with them because they are short-staffed).

Do I need to conduct a background check on the provider?

A comprehensive background check consists of federal and state fingerprint, criminal record, child abuse registry, sex offender registry, and juvenile record checks. Most states conduct background checks on providers, but may not include all the checks listed above. In California, the licensing agency performs all of them except for the sex offender registry and juvenile record checks. To see which ones your state performs, see this table compiled by Child Care Aware.

Enrolling in a home-based care can be immensely rewarding for both the parent and the child. Before you jump right in, however, it is important to that you talk to the provider and do your research to ensure that the daycare is not only safe, but also nourishing, for your child.

More resources:

Family Child Care Consumer Awareness Information

Parent FAQ on the CDSS website

California Code of Regulations for Community Care Facilities


One thought on “What to Look For in a Home-Based Care

  1. Hello I just wanted to add that a lot of the family home day cares in San Jose are now being required to be trained to prepare there toddlers for preschool and our preschoolers ready for kindergarten.


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