Choosing day care is a chore, particularly for first-time parent,s who often feel a little lost and confused by the new experiences they face every day.

"The most important person in my life right now is my family home provider," said Kris Hale, program director of the Child Care Connection, Utah's only full-service resource and referral system. "I understand how crucial good child care is, and how concerned parents feel when making such a crucial decision.

"As an agency, we try to help parents with the process. Then we show them how to support their child-care provider."

The Child Care Connection keeps a list of all-day care, drop-in care, preschool, in-home agencies, family day care and centers, as well as ski resort care, corporate day care and handicapped services -- "anyone who chooses to list with us."

It does not judge the quality of the care, nor does it screen providers. Instead, staff members try to teach parents what to look for in day care in order to make their own judgments.

The nominal fees for the service are on a sliding scale (free for families with an income below $15,000, $5 for families that earn $15,000-20,000, $10 for families in the $20,000-30,000 bracket, etc.) and are good for a year.

Child-care experts agree that parents should consider certain factors before selecting a program:

-- Is this a warm environment? Is there a degree of organization that allows flexibility within safe parameters?

-- Is it safe and sanitary?

-- Are there enough adults to work with the children? A good child-adult ratio is critical to good child care.

--Are the materials and toys appropriate for the ages of the children?

-- Are the toys clean and durable and are there suplicates so the children don't have to spend the whole day "sharing?"

-- Do you feel comfortable with the care providers? Do yhou think you will be able to communicate openly about your child's progress and any problems that arise?

-- Examine the training of the staff members. Usually the director isn't the one who has one-on-one interaction with a child. Does an infant have the same provider regularly? Infants and children need an opportunity to bond with their primary care-giver.

-- Does the center have a high employee turnover rate? Children need consistency. Ask about the employee pay scale and benefits.

arents have to deal with it at home every time a child's "friend" leaves to accept a better-paying job.

-- Visit at least twice, unexpectedly, before you sign up. Make sure the center has nice, sturdy equipment. Do you feel comfortable if you drop in at lunch?

-- Are there places for a child to be alone or in small groups? Children, like adults, need private time.

-- Is the outside play area inviting?

-- Always contact at least two parents who have children in care there. Can they recommend the place?

-- How is discipline used and what form does it take? Make sure discipline is used to teach, rather than just to punish.

-- What kind of first aid training do staff members have?

-- Is sick-child care available? (The answer is usually "No.")

-- Look at the area where meals are prepared. Is it clean? Are the meals nutritious? What meals and snacks are provided?

-- Does the facility stress education and offer opportunities for a child to stretch and grow?

-- Will the care-giver work with yhou in toilet training toddlers?

-- Are children treated equally and is individuality respected and encouraged?

"(Providers) are responsible for the health and well-being of someone's child," Hale said. "But parents need to remember that no home is perfect. No center has wonderful days every day. So parents need to give centers the benefit of the doubt occasionally if they feel the majority of what goes on is in line."

Once parents have selected child care, they should pay attention to the signals that children send out.

"It's really scary," said Emmie Rutledge, mother of 18-month-old Marcus, who is in family day care. "You hear so much about abuse and you don't really know what goes on when you're not there. I can only tell by watching Marcus. He likes to go to day care. He always runs up to the door and hugs (staff members) when I drop him off. And he comes home clean and happy."