The stress of finding a good child-care program for a new baby or child can be overwhelming for parents. In addition to trying to figure out which day-care provider is the best match for a child’s personality, parents might wonder how the curricula of different centers compare or what level of training staff have. Are there child-care options near their home or workplace they might not know about?

That’s why it’s important for parents to have the right information at their fingertips. In particular, they should know about one helpful resource, the website, which allows people to search for child care providers near them and see where they fall on the state’s quality rating system, if they fall on it at all.

If more people used the website and picked a child-care provider based on the level of care it’s able to provide, it could propel more providers to strive for the highest quality rating. There are about 2,008 licensed child-care providers in Maine, and only half, or 1,006, are enrolled in the voluntary rating system Quality for ME, created by the Department of Health and Human Services. Of those participating, just 16 percent, or 161, have achieved Step Four, the highest rating, according to the Maine Children’s Alliance. More than half, or 587, are at the lowest level, Step One. In between, 17.3 percent, or 174, are at Step Two, and 8.3 percent, or 84, are at Step Three.

The different steps are based on the providers’ licensing status, daily schedule, curriculum plans, communication with parents, program evaluations and levels of staff training. If your child-care provider doesn’t have a top rating, it doesn’t mean your child won’t learn in that setting or be happy; the rating should be a component considered during the process of deciding where you want your child spending much of his or her time.

But if parents don’t know about the rating system, they can’t use it. So there is good reason for health care professionals or others who come into contact with pregnant women or parents with small children to let them know it exists. Parents should be able to easily determine not only a provider’s quality but whether the provider is participating in the rating system at all.

The years between birth and age 5 are crucial for brain development — at least 85 percent of brain development happens by age 5 — but you wouldn’t know how important those early years are just by looking at Maine’s loosely regulated system of day-care providers. Having more providers participating in and scoring well on the rating system will give the network of providers greater credibility and enhance transparency. There are also incentives — in the form of tax credits — for parents to send their children to a top-rated child-care provider and for providers to become top-rated, helping offset the costs associated with higher-quality care.

Not every provider is going to reach Step Four, but all parents should be able to quickly determine whether a provider is participating in the ratings system and what level of quality the provider has achieved. The website is a great start. Now parents have to use it — and use their buying power to drive improvements at the places where their littlest spend much of their time.