Child Care 101

Child Care 101

High-quality child care keeps children safe and healthy. Get the basics with our Child Care 101 questions and answers.

Regulated child care means that the caregiver has been licensed by the Maryland State Department of Education’s Office of Child Care (OCC). In order to be licensed, child care providers must meet minimum health, safety and program requirements including the following:

  • The child care facility must pass an inspection to show that it is safe, clean and appropriate for child care.
  • There must be an adequate supply of safe and age-appropriate activity equipment and materials for children.
  • The caregiver and program staff must undergo criminal background checks, child abuse and neglect clearances, physical examinations and have substantial training in child care.
  • For added protection, the Office of Child Care checks the Sex Offender Registry to ensure that registered sex offenders are not working in a child care facility.

Only regulated care guarantees that the minimum legal requirements are met. Ask to see a child care provider’s license or certificate of registration to show that they are regulated. Using unregulated care can be dangerous and put children at risk because the provider has not met the health, safety and professional standards required of regulated providers.

You may choose to have a friend or a relative provide care for your child in your home. Or you may wish to have a relative care for your child in the relative's home. These are informal kinds of child care, and they are exempt from regulation under Maryland law. A friend or neighbor who occasionally "baby sits" your child in her home for short periods is also exempt from regulation -- The care provided is less than 20 hours per month.

Maryland has two kinds of regulated child care facilities: licensed child care centers and registered family child care homes. In both cases, the facilities are initially authorized to operate for two years. After that, they may apply for a non-expiring license or registration. Unannounced inspections are conducted annually to ensure the facilities meet the legal requirement for regulated child care.

Licensed Child Care Centers

Licensed Child Care Centers are professionally staffed facilities which generally serve large groups of children. While centers vary greatly in size, each one must remain within the maximum child capacity established for it by Office of Child Care. This means that no more than a specified number of children may be present in a given center at one time (see below). Centers operate for part or all of a day at least twice a week on a regular basis.

  • Some centers primarily provide care for infants and toddlers. Other centers care only for preschool or school-age children. Most centers provide care for a range of ages.
  • In many centers, children are usually grouped with others of the same age. Other centers use mixed-age groups (for example, infants or toddlers grouped with pre-school age children, or pre-school age children grouped with school age children).
  • Small group centers have a maximum capacity of 12 children and may be located in private residences.
  • School-age child care centers offer programs before and/or after school hours and during school holidays, vacations and out-of-school programs for inclement weather. 
  • Nursery schools are educational programs for children two years through four years old. These programs are approved by the Maryland State Department of Education. Most are also licensed by Office of Child Care as child care programs.
Child Age Group Staff-to-Child Ratio Maximum Size

0-18 months

1:3

6        

18-24 months

1:3

9

Two years

1:6                   

12

Three to four years

1:10

20

Five years or older

1:15

30

Registered Family Child Care Homes

Registered Family Child Care Homes are also operated by professional caregivers, but within private residences, usually the primary caregiver’s home. Some of the legal requirements around these facilities include:

  • There cannot be more than eight children present for care in the home at one time.
  • No more than two of those children – including the caregiver’s children – may be under two years old unless there are additional staff members present.
  • There may never be – under any circumstances – more than four children under the age of two, regardless of how many staff members are present.
  • Family child care homes typically operate for at least eight hours per day and usually offer flexible scheduling.
  • Like child care centers, some family child care homes provide care for mixed groups while others focus on particular age groups.

Some of the physical requirements for both kinds of care providers include:

  • Receiving approval of the Office of Child Care, the fire department and local agencies
  • Providing care in approved areas of the facility only
  • Posting license or registration so it can be seen easily by parents
  • Offering a program of both indoor and outdoor activities that are appropriate to the children’s ages, needs and capabilities
  • Discipline procedures must be appropriate to the children’s age and maturity levels; no corporal punishment is allowed

You play the most important role in your child's growth and development. Deciding on the right kind of child care for you and your child is difficult. But it is a decision that only you can make.

Here are some of your responsibilities as a consumer of child care:

  • When you find a facility that fits your needs and feels right for your child, talk with the provider again. Good communication with your provider is important right from the start. Tell the provider about your child and the kind of care you would like for your child. This is especially important if your child's care will require any particular conditions. It will also help the provider know what you expect for your child.
  • Work out arrangements with the provider before your child begins the program. Be sure to discuss who is responsible for providing meals and snacks, when fees are due, what happens if fee payment is late and the days that the facility is closed. Signing a contract or service agreement will help to settle these arrangements. But first, read the contract or agreement carefully to make sure it covers all the items that you believe it should. Please be aware that any dispute that may arise later over details of the contract or agreement must be resolved between you and the provider -- child care regulators have no jurisdiction in contract disputes.
  • If you are unhappy with something about the facility after your child has started there, discuss the situation with the provider as soon as possible. Doing so may make it easier to work out a solution.
  • You can help the provider care for your child by telling him or her if something unusual happened at home the previous night or weekend. That way, the provider can plan to be on the lookout for differences in your child.

If you choose regulated child care, you have several rights which are protected under Maryland law. You:

  • Have the right to expect that the care your child receives meets the requirements set by Maryland child care regulations
  • Have the right to visit the facility any time your child is in care without making an appointment
  • Have the right to see the rooms and outside play area where care is provided during program hours
  • Are to be notified if someone in the family child care home smokes. In child care centers, smoking is not allowed
  • Have the right to receive advance notice when a substitute will be caring for your child in a family child care home for more than two (2) hours at a time
  • Must give written permission before a provider or teacher may take your child swimming, wading or on field trips
  • Are to be notified immediately of any serious injury or accident. If your child has a non-serious injury or accident, you must be notified on the same day
  • May file a complaint with the Office of Child Care if you believe that the provider or teacher is violating child care regulations. Any complaint you make about the child care facility or the care being provided there (whether it involves your child or not) will be promptly investigated. Your complaint may be filed verbally or in writing. You should address it to the Office of Child Care Regional Licensing Office that has jurisdiction over the area where the facility is located, since that is the office that will conduct the investigation. Once its investigation of the complaint is complete, the Regional Licensing Office must, at your request, inform you about the results of the investigation
  • Have the right to review, at the Office of Child Care Regional Licensing Office, the public portion of the licensing or registration file on the child care facility where your child is or was enrolled, or where you are considering enrolling your child.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all child care providers make reasonable efforts to accommodate individual needs of children with disabilities. Examples of services include:

  • Schedule adjustments for children who take medication
  • Having staff who are trained in sign language
  • Putting signs in Braille on the belongings of children who are blind
  • Removing physical barriers or offering alternative means of access for disabled children.

The Child Care Subsidy Program issues vouchers to eligible families to help them pay their child care costs. To be eligible, families must meet certain need and income requirements. To learn more, call CCS Central at 1-866-243-8796 or follow this link to the program.

High-quality child care keeps children safe and healthy. In addition, it helps children develop skills they will need for success in school and in their lives outside of school:

  • Social, emotional and communication skills
  • Pre-literacy and basic mathematical skills and concepts
  • An awareness of their environment and the roles of the people in it

When watching high-quality child care, you should see that:

  • The child care providers are responsive to the needs of each child.
  • There are open, supportive and engaging experiences for children.
  • Interactions between providers and children are warm and positive.
  • Learning opportunities are developmentally appropriate, interactive and plentiful.
  • Health, safety and welfare are absolute priorities.

Knowledge is Power

Maryland EXCELS provides families with a wealth of knowledge around Maryland child care providers. Maryland EXCELS supports families by offering:

  • A simple method –- including a mobile app –- for finding high-quality child care and education programs in their location
  • A user-friendly rating system that helps families identify the very best high-quality programs that match the specific needs of children

Learn more about Maryland EXCELS in our Tips section and at their website.