When it comes to choosing a child care provider, it’s important to look beyond the glowing letters of reference from past parents. Visit the location, talk to other children and families in the setting and, if possible, watch a day unfold. Ask providers to explain their educational background and training, and what they’re doing to keep kids safe. It’s also worth asking what their expectations are around meals and naptime, and how they handle sick kids or vacation days.

A key advantage of child care is that it gives toddlers the opportunity to socialize with other people, develop their language skills and build a foundation for learning about their world. It also helps them to become independent, learn to communicate with others, and set goals for themselves. In the end, these are all critical to a healthy childhood and early school experience.

Research shows that children who spend time in child care have better grades, fewer emotional problems and a lower risk of behavioral issues later in life (BMJ). In fact, some studies show that high-quality childcare can increase women’s lifetime earnings by about $140,000 (Evans & McMahon, 2011).

Ultimately, though, the biggest influence on children will remain their parents. That’s why many parents wonder whether it’s right to leave their kids in someone else’s care. However, the truth is that careful research has shown no reason to worry. The positive effects of child care are far greater than the negatives.

Aside from the fact that kids who spend a lot of time in child care tend to be more successful academically, the structure of daily routines at daycare provide a sense of stability. This teaches kids how to follow a schedule, which will be useful both in school and as they enter the workforce. And establishing a daily routine is an essential part of cognitive development, especially in infants and toddlers.

Some states offer subsidies for child care that can help working families afford it, and President Obama’s proposed $3.5 trillion budget includes a proposal to expand these programs. Regardless of whether you’re eligible, though, be sure to shop carefully. A licensed provider can make all the difference. It doesn’t guarantee that your child will receive the best care, but it’s a good start and ensures that the provider meets state-set health and safety requirements. Check with your state’s licensing agency to learn more.