Finding child care in the D.C. metro area is a competitive headache for many parents who are faced with hundreds of choices for care facilities, long wait lists and sky-high costs. The enrollment competition is fueled by a limited number of openings and competitive pricing throughout the District, which forces parents to start their child care search months before they will actually enroll a child.

Long wait lists can make it difficult to gain a coveted spot in some of D.C.'s most competitive centers, so it is important to begin your search and apply to care centers well in advance of your ideal enrollment date.

Jen Usmanova, one of three co-founders of the child care search engine CareLuLu, recommends that parents begin their search when they find out they are pregnant, or even a full year before they need child care. Other experts agree that parents should begin looking at care centers as soon as possible.

"Sometimes parents call us when they're pregnant," says Fabiola St. Hilaire, an outreach specialist at DC Childcare Connections, which connects parents with local child care centers. "It's really never too early."

Even after securing a reservation on a wait list, parents should continue to add their child's name to other wait lists to maximize the potential of finding a suitable care center within a preferred timeline.

Meegan Herman, a Montgomery County mom, started her child care search three months prior to the time she knew she needed to have her children in a care center.

"Popular centers and facilities can book up early," says Herman, mom to Ava, 5, Tyler, 11 and Zoe, 16. "Contact the facility as early as possible to see what the average time on a wait list is and how far in advance you can reserve a spot."

Although parents often try to find a center close to home, experts suggest looking beyond your own neighborhood and expanding your search to nearby locations with lower costs and shorter wait lists.

"I encourage parents to look at nearby towns," says Usmanova. "Just crossing over from D.C. to Virginia could save you money."

Sticker Shock

Washington, D.C. outranks all 50 states when it comes to the cost of child care. According to the 2014 report, "Parents and the High Cost of Childcare," published by Child Care Aware of America, a year of full-time infant care in D.C. costs $21,948 - that's more than the average cost of a year of tuition at a public D.C. college.

That cost eats up about 14 percent of a married couple's annual income, and about 83 percent of that of a single parent, according to the report.

D.C.'s premium prices can be partially attributed to the cost of rent in the city, which increases the cost of tuition per child. Greater demand in particular areas can also account for high prices within the city, as Usmanova suggests.

The price of full-time care in D.C. decreases as the child ages, dipping to a yearly average of $17,304 for 4-year-olds and $13,211 for school-age children, the report says. The cost also decreases just outside the District, in both Maryland and Virginia.

In Maryland and Virginia, parents can anticipate an average yearly cost of $13,897 and $10,028, respectively, for full-time infant care - nearly half the cost of the same care in D.C., meaning that sacrificing location could result in cheaper options, as Usmanova says.

Here to Help

After completing her master's degree, Usmanova planned to find child care for her daughters and then return to work. She anticipated a simple online search for facilities that met her needs, but instead visited 16 centers within four months before finding a suitable and affordable center for her children, Eva, 5 and Maya, 3.

As a result, Usmanova launched CareLuLu with her husband, Patrick Matos, and a third co-founder, Gabriel Marques. Today, the childcare search engine, which is based in San Francisco but focuses solely on D.C., serves as a free resource for parents, who can utilize 30 to 40 filters on the site to narrow their search.

"Instead of going through each listing and reading about it, the website immediately matches you with the facilities that meet what you're looking for," says Usmanova.

After finding potential care centers online, Usmanova says parents should schedule visits at those centers to observe how teachers interact with children, and to ask questions about how the facility meets their family's needs.

"If you can, visit the first time for an interview and then ask if you can just come in and observe," Usmanova says. She adds that parents should also ask if the center offers a free discovery day, where children can come play in the care center in a trial-run setting.

While you're there, be sure to locate the facility's license, which should be posted near the entrance.

Herman agrees that visiting care centers is a critical part of the search process. She also recommends just dropping by.

"Make an unscheduled visit to see how things really run," Herman says. "I have walked into centers unscheduled to find kids sitting around watching TV, children crying uncontrollably and hysterically, [and] children working quietly and collectively.

These visits should give you an idea of how the center is run and what you can expect from the program. Both Herman and Usmanova recommend asking the care provider for references from parents whose children are currently enrolled in the program.

Usmanova also encourages parents to be honest with caregivers about their financial situation, since some facilities will be willing to make accommodations. To cut costs, she says parents should: consider part-time care, ask the provider about upcoming enrollment promotions and look for common discounts, such as those for military members, teachers and siblings.

Additionally, in D.C., the Child Care Subsidy Program can help qualifying families pay for child care at select facilities.

In the end, finding child care in the D.C. metro area comes down to research, planning and affordability to ultimately ensure the right fit for your child and for your family.