But the information available online is incomplete and can be misleading. A loose-fitting bed sheet could be logged as violating a regulation about having a properly outfitted crib, for example, and scented soap might be documented as a potential safety hazard, child care workers said.

They point to a new, voluntary rating program called Maryland Excels (www.marylandexcels.org) as a better way to gauge program quality. The initiative, in the pilot phase for two years, is set to go live this month, giving participating centers an incentive to improve their offerings and parents a means to further assess the care at a particular site.

A difficult job

Child care is a tough business. It pays an average $18,000 a year for aides and $26,000 for senior teachers. And it has a high turnover rate, which educators said isn't good for children, who need stability and lasting bonds.

Margo Sipes, executive director of Downtown Baltimore Child Care, said low turnover is one of her center's best selling points. Her teachers have an average tenure of more than nine years.

"We pay a little bit better, not a whole lot. It's still abysmal, it's an abysmal wage," Sipes said. But they make up the difference with benefits such as health and dental packages, paid leave, staff development and smaller class sizes that help prevent burnout.

The center, open for 30 years, frequently has waiting lists, especially for its youngest slots — something that often causes great consternation for parents.

"I've been offered $1,000 under the table to over-enroll a classroom. … I've had people sobbing on the phone," Sipes said. Others have called board member contacts, hoping they will bend the rules.

"Infant care is very hard to get; there are not enough slots. And then if you count quality slots, there are really not enough."

At Streetlite Christian Child Development Center, a church-affiliated facility in Federal Hill, the waiting list extends into 2016 for women who are pregnant now and want to enroll their children at age 2, said director Carol Zimmerman.

The center, which doesn't accept infants, just raised its rates from $230 per week to $242, about $12,600 per year.

O'Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, put her now 3-month-old son on Streetlite's waiting list for fall of 2015 weeks ago. He's No. 20 on the list.

"I should have done it in utero, I guess," she said of searching for his care. Her organization works to keep current families in the city and to draw new ones. The lack of day care is a hindrance, she said.

"It's definitely something that causes a lot of anxiety and frustration," O'Brien said. "If there aren't options available, I think it might be something — for somebody who's on the fence about leaving — it might be something that kind of breaks the camel's back."

There's no indication yet that young families are leaving the city because of the shortage of day care, economists said, though many do flee once their children reach school age.

But it's an issue that could arise in the next decade as the young millennials being hired by companies and brought to the city reach the family stage, said Mike Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Advocating for adequate child care "is something I anticipate we're going to be doing a lot more of in … the future," Evitts said.

Day care in peril

The Downtown Partnership has been talking with Children's Choice Learning Center to determine if the organization can help facilitate a relocation. Among the challenges are finding available and suitable real estate — the center is closing because the Social Security Administration that leases space to it is moving.

"There is a real lack of supply of high-quality child care and early education across the country, and especially in urban areas, including Baltimore, where real estate can contribute to this problem," Lara Holder, a CCLC senior vice president, wrote in an email. She added that the company "would love" to find a way to stay in the city.