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How to Start a Daycare in Iowa

Learn how to apply for a daycare license in Iowa and remain compliant after approval.

How to Start a Daycare in Iowa

How to Start a Daycare in Iowa

Childcare businesses support families and communities by providing children with safe places to learn and grow. Childcare, however, is often regulated by certain state and local agencies and providers must meet strict guidelines and requirements before opening for business.

Before starting a childcare business, it’s important to understand what standards are required. This article discusses the different types of childcare licenses in the state of Iowa, various requirements providers must meet, steps to take to apply for a license, and how to remain compliant.

Two young children work on a colorful paper project next to each other

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Do I need a childcare license in Iowa?

If you are starting a daycare center or any childcare business, whether the state of Iowa requires you to have a license depends on the location where care is provided, how often care is provided, and how many children are receiving care. For example, people that provide care to one child in that child’s own home are considered non-registered in-home providers and do not need to be licensed. Those who provide care in their own home to five or less children at any time are considered a non-registered childcare home and are also not required to be licensed. If the provider is caring for more than five children, however, a license is required. 

The state of Iowa categorizes childcare providers into three groups: licensed childcare centers, registered child development homes, and childcare homes that may be registered or non-registered. 


Centers and child development homes are required to be licensed. Registered child development homes are split into A, B, and C categories depending on the amount of children. Category A homes can care for up to 8 children, category B homes can care for up to 12 children, and category C homes can care for a maximum of 16 if there are at least two childcare providers present. 

Other programs, such as church-related programs, pediatric care programs, and nationally accredited camps, are not required to be licensed. The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides a list of programs that are not required to be licensed in the Care Centers and Preschools Licensing Standards and Procedures document. However, programs that are not required to be licensed can still complete the application for licensing to increase their credibility and qualify for childcare assistance (CCA) funding from the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS). Take all of this into consideration as you are drafting a daycare business plan

Childcare licensing requirements in Iowa

Each type of childcare provider has a slightly different application process and licensing requirements. The state provides information about the requirements for different types of childcare providers. For a non-registered childcare home to apply, there are no requirements for experience or education but the applicant does have to be at least 18 years old. 

Each childcare provider type has different requirements for obtaining a license, including things like education, staff-to-child ratios, and training.

Licensed childcare centers

The Iowa HHS provides a detailed description of everything required to run a compliant childcare center in the Care Centers and Preschools Licensing Standards and Procedures document. It includes requirements for things like food services, parental participation, record keeping, activity programs, and more. It also provides information on the required staff-to-child ratios, which are:

  • 2 weeks to 2 years old: One staff member for four children (1:4)
  • 2 years old: One staff member for seven children (1:7)
  • 3 years old: One staff member for 10 children (1:10)
  • 4 years old: One staff member for 12 children (1:12)
  • 5 years to 10 years old: One staff member for 15 children (1:15)
  • 10+ years old: One staff member for 20 children (1:20)

There are also requirements for different types of staff at a licensed childcare center. A center may have positions like a director, on-site supervisor, assisting staff, and more. In order to be a center director and apply for a license, the following is required: 

  • 21 years of age
  • High school diploma or GED
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher degree in early childhood, child development, or elementary education, or at least one of the following depending on experience level:
    • Associate’s degree in child development or bachelor’s degree in a child-related field
    • Child development associate (CDA) credential or one-year diploma in child development from community college or technical school
    • Bachelor’s degree in a non-child-related field
    • Associate’s degree in a non-child-related field or completion of at least two years of a four-year degree
  • At least one year working full-time (20 hours or more) in a childcare center or preschool setting, or at least two of the following depending on education level:
    • One year of part-time (less than 20 hours) in a childcare center or preschool setting
    • One year of full-time child-development related experience
    • One year of part-time child development-related experience
    • One year as a registered child development home
    • One year as a non-registered family home provider
  • Current first aid and CPR certification
  • Child abuse certificate

The facility that houses the program is also subject to requirements. It generally needs to be a sanitary, safe, and hazard-free place for children. There must be adequate indoor and outdoor space, proper kitchen equipment, and sufficient lighting, ventilation, heating, cooling, and bathroom and diapering areas. 

Licensed child development homes

The Iowa HHS provides a detailed description of everything required to run a registered child development home in the Child Development Home Registration Guidelines document. It includes requirements for things like discipline, meals, professional development and more. 

Child development homes are also required to adhere to certain staff-to-child ratios. Category A child development homes can care for up to six preschool-aged children and up to 8 when schools are closed for emergencies. Category B child development homes may care for up to eight preschool-aged children and up to 12 when schools are closed for emergencies. Category C child development homes may care for up to 14 preschool-aged children and up to 16 when schools are closed for emergencies. For every category, the provider’s own children must be included in the ratio.

Each type of child development home also has different requirements for the childcare provider. They will differ in terms of age, education, and experience in order to qualify. They also have different requirements for the homes themselves. These are the requirements for each type of child development home:

  • Child development home A provider requirements
    • Be at least 18 years old
    • Have three written references that attest to character and ability to provide child care
  • Child development home A facility requirements
    • Fire extinguisher
    • Smoke detectors
  • Child development home B provider requirements
    • Be at least 20 years old
    • Have a high school diploma or GED or documentation of current or previous enrollment in credit-based coursework from a post-secondary educational institution that is an accredited college or university
    • Meet one of the following requirements: 
      • Have two years of experience as a non-registered or registered childcare provider
      • Have a child development associate credential or a two-year or four-year college degree in a child care related field AND one year of experience as a non-registered or registered childcare provider
  • Child development home B facility requirements
    • Fire extinguisher
    • Smoke detectors
    • At least two direct exits to the outside from the main floor
    • Minimum of 35 square feet of child-use floor space for each child in care indoors, and a minimum of 50 square feet per child in care outdoors
    • Separate quiet area for sick children 
  • Child development home C provider requirements
    • Be at least 21 years old
    • Have a high school diploma or GED or documentation of current or previous enrollment in credit-based coursework from a post-secondary educational institution that is an accredited college or university
    • Meet one of the following requirements: 
      • Have five years’ experience as a non-registered or registered childcare provider
      • Have a child development associate credential or a two-year or four-year college degree in a child care related field AND four years of experience as a non-registered or registered childcare home provider
  • Child development home C facility requirements
    • Fire extinguisher
    • Smoke detectors
    • At least two direct exits to the outside from the main floor
    • Minimum of 35 square feet of child-use floor space for each child in care indoors, and a minimum of 50 square feet per child in care outdoors
    • Separate quiet area for sick children

Childcare license application in Iowa

The provider application process for each type of business will be slightly different depending on if you are operating in a center or a home. Before beginning, it’s beneficial to contact the Iowa Child Care Resource & Referral (ICCRR) staff in your area to help you through the process. Then, you can find more information, familiarize yourself with the general childcare documents, create a training account, and officially become a new applicant in the DHS Child Care Provider Portal

Licensed childcare center

Follow the steps below to apply to become a licensed childcare center.

Step 1: Contact the Iowa Child Care Resource and Referral (ICCRR) agency 

The first step is to contact the ICCRR staff to be assigned a childcare consultant that will provide you with an orientation packet to begin the process. 

Step 2: Provide required documentation

Next, you will need to provide a fire inspection certificate, floor plan of the building, a variety of written items such as plans and policies regarding your center, and documentation of the center director/on-site supervisor’s completion of the required CPR, first aid, and mandatory reporting of child abuse trainings. 

Step 3: Pay fees

Then, you will be sent the Child Care Center Licensing Application and Invoice and be required to send the necessary fees to the DHS. 

Step 4: Submit background checks

Once the Iowa HHS receives the required fees, background checks will commence. ICCRR staff are trained to assist you with the required fingerprinting free of charge, so contact them for help.

Step 5: Await a decision

Once you have completed the prior steps, you are free to choose a daycare center name and open for business under licensing standards and procedures for up to 120 days pending a decision on your license. Lastly, your childcare consultant will make at least one on-site visit before you are either approved for a full license, approved for a provisional license, or denied.

Registered child development home

The process for applying to open a registered child development home is very similar to the process for opening a licensed center. Follow the steps below to apply for a child development home license.

Step 1: Contact the ICCRR

Contact an ICCRR childcare consultant to receive an application packet. Then, familiarize yourself with the Child Development Home Registration Guidelines.

Step 2: Complete the required training

Make an account with the DHS Training Registry to complete all the required training courses. You will need to complete CPR, first aid, and mandatory reporting of child abuse training. 

Step 3: Submit background checks

Background checks are required for the following:

  • Every operator of a child development home
  • All staff members, including substitute providers, with direct responsibility for child care
  • Anyone 14 years and older who is living in the child development home
  • Anyone who might have access to a child when the child is alone

Step 4: Pass a pre-inspection

Then, prepare your home for the DHS pre-inspection with the help of your childcare consultant. This pre-inspection will also include providing a Child Care Provider Physical Examination Report that proves you are in good health.

Step 5: Await a decision

Once the pre-inspection is complete and any issues are corrected, you will create a professional development plan and then are free to open for business if you are approved for a license.

Non-registered childcare home providers that care for less than six children and non-registered in-home providers that offer care in children’s homes are also able to apply for a license, but aren’t required to do so. If you would like to receive a license as a non-registered in-home provider, you must care for at least three CCA-eligible children in order to do so. Non-registered childcare homes, plus licensed childcare centers and registered child development homes, must complete the Child Care Assistance Provider Agreement to qualify for CCA funding. Non-registered providers can apply for a license through the DHS portal and with the help of ICCRR staff.

How to stay compliant with a daycare license in Iowa

Registered childcare providers can stay in touch with their ICCRR consultant for ongoing assistance with remaining compliant. All providers are required to maintain the licensing standards and requirements set for themselves and the locations in which they operate at the time of their application. DHS will visit every registered provider annually to ensure compliance. All providers must also renew their license every two years.

Childcare centers and homes must maintain compliance with required staff-to-child ratios. In addition, all CPR, first aid, mandated reporter, and other required DHS training have expiration dates and will need to be completed again by all staff. Providers at centers and registered child development homes must complete 24 hours of development training every two years, but for non-registered childcare homes with a license, only 6 hours are required.

Pay attention to the documents and resources provided by DHS and ICCRR and advice from your childcare consultant to ensure that you stay compliant. If you hire any new staff, quickly get their required training and background checks completed to bring them up to compliance. There is a lot to keep track of in order to stay compliant with licensing. A tool like brightwheel’s center management software is made to help you efficiently manage your childcare program to keep your license in good standing. As you continue to provide the best care to families, start marketing your daycare business to help more prospective families find your program.

Start a daycare in Iowa

Learning about what is required to apply for a license, how to qualify as an applicant, and remain compliant with state regulations is just the first step. Utilize all of the resources provided by the state to help you through the process and you will be able to successfully create a childcare business in Iowa. 

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