When Alisa Bee found out she was pregnant this past July, her friends suggested she might want to begin her child-care search immediately, but she thought she had a whole year to plan.
In September, she made some calls. But when she really started looking in October, it was too late.
"I had no idea there were waiting lists," said Bee, who has a good sense of humor about the situation. "The whole thing shouldn't be funny, but I found it hysterical. I couldn't believe how clueless and behind I was, but these moms are supermoms who have been on the list since 2009."
She and her husband, Stiles, live and work on Daniel Island, so they searched in the Mount Pleasant area and are on the list for two facilities.
Lengthy waiting lists often a year or more at child-care centers around the Lowcountry are common, particularly for parents needing infant care. The state dictates a 1-to-5 staff-to-child ratio for children under the age of 1, so day cares often have the least amount of availability for infant care.
In Charleston County, there were more than 4,800 births between 2008 and 2009, according to U.S. census data. Add another 4,500 births in Berkeley and Dorchester counties and it's easy to see the growing demand for child care.
"There are a number of people who are pregnant and looking for quality child care at the infant level, and there's not anything in our area," said Kelly Dack, director of the Children's Nook on Clements Ferry Road.
Its infant program is booked with 40 to 50 people in need of child care in the next six months.
Dack said they purposely keep the infant room small because they don't want an assembly line but rather a nurturing environment with individualized attention.
Some child-care centers don't even offer infant care, limiting the options for parents even further.
On the list
Charles Towne Child Development Center in West Ashley provides care for children ages 2-4 and has a waiting list. It's a small preschool that runs primarily on referrals.
Director and owner Sara Foreman said waiting lists aren't all bad.
"I tell parents when you're looking for child care, the first thing is to look for a place and if they don't have a waiting list, you need to go to another school. If they have an immediate opening, they better have a good reason," she said.
But that doesn't mean it's not frustrating for parents.
Marketing professional Allison McCutcheon headed back to work Jan. 3, sending her daughter, Gray, to the Sunshine House on Long Point Road. The facility is close to her office. But she and her husband live on James Island, and he works downtown and they had hoped for something closer to home so they could split the drop-off and pickup duties.
McCutcheon said she's on at least three other waiting lists, and she's considering in-home-care options.
"All the places top on our list have long waiting lists," she said.
And yet the long waiting list is just one of the hurdles on the track to finding quality care. A number of factors affect parents' decisions, including location, work schedules and pricing.
Putting a child in day care usually will cost about $150 to $200 a week. Infant care is typically the most expensive with prices dropping as the child gets older.
Then there's the overall quality of the center. If a child is spending eight hours a day there, parents will want to ensure it is clean and safe, follows state requirements and provides an educational and nurturing environment.
Candace Jaruszewicz is director of the N.E. Miles Early Childhood Development Center at the College of Charleston. The center provides child care for college employees and is a teaching environment for students studying childhood development.
When assessing the quality of a center, she stresses the importance of that "gut feeling when you walk in the door."
"You're making a significant investment in the program," she said. "You need to feel comfortable and confident that you can leave your child and not stress all day."
The Miles Center is accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Few programs have that accreditation, but that doesn't mean they aren't good programs, Jaruszewicz said.
Any program worth considering should be current on developmentally appropriate practices for young children, she pointed out.
The curriculum and teaching practices shouldn't be based only on the child's age, but on the concept that each child is an individual, she said. They should have enough flexibility to meet the child's needs and interests.
"Children should have plentiful opportunities for open-ended play where they make their own choices and decisions about how to spend their time -- indoors and outdoors," Jaruszewicz said. "The social and emotional development should be at least as equally important as the academic part."
Bee said when she was visiting centers, she took note of everything from the smell and the security of the facility to the friendliness of the staff and teachers.
"They are helping you raise the most precious thing you have."