There are many sources of information regarding childcare and where you begin will depend upon your circumstances - where you live, the ages of your children, financial situation, how flexible your arrangements can be, whether you have a supportive family nearby to help you. Whatever your situation here are just a few places that you could begin:
- Online, including your local county council website that can provide a list of registered agencies and childminders
- Your health visitor
- Word of mouth
- National Child Minding Association
- Local authority, usually Social Services, responsible for locally registered child minders, nurseries, holiday schemes and after school clubs
- If you are at university or college there may be a creche or nursery on site for students and staff. Ask whether the students union can help towards the cost of your nursery fees but do not assume that this is your only or best option - shop around.
Playgroups and Nurseries
Playgroups normally offer morning sessions to children aged 2 - 5 years old. Playgroups offer the opportunity for your child to interact with others of the same age and learn some social and educational skills before starting school. If you are going out to work you will probably need more hours than a playgroup can offer but playgroups are normally cheaper than nurseries and could be combined with afternoon care provided by a child minder or au-pair.
Day nurseries provide care and educational skills for pre-school children and offer full or half days depending upon the policy of the nursery and the age of the child. Some cater for babies as young as 6 weeks although demand for these places is usually high and most women put their babies names down when they find out that they are pregnant. The cost per hour and opening hours will vary from nursery to nursery.
Choosing a Nursery or Playgroup
A list of registered nurseries and playgroups is available from your local authority (usually Social Services or local council). Phone the ones that you are interested in and make an appointment to visit.
Childminders have to register with the local authority who police check and approve them. They need to meet certain health and safety standards and their premises are Ofsted inspected on a regular basis.
The numbers of children a childminder can care for is limited and must include their own children. Certain terms may also apply, for example most childminders are only registered for day and not overnight care.
Ring your local authority for a list of registered childminders in your area. Alternatively you can contact the National Childminding Association. Ring around and make an appointment to visit childminders who have available space. Make a list of questions that you wish to ask and be specific about your requirements.
Nannies and Au Pairs
Live-in nannies are open to anyone who has space in their house and can afford it. They can offer more flexibility and freedom than other forms of childcare and allow your child to be cared for in their own home. A nanny should be a qualified nursery nurse, come with references and you should be able to contact their college. Nannies can be found through agencies or training colleges.
Live-out nannies are much the same as live-in nannies but may not offer as much flexibility. They care for your child in your home and usually charge a fixed rate per hour regardless of the number of children they care for. They will be more expensive than a child minder but this can be a cost effective form of childcare for someone with a large family.
Au-pairs are foreign students who come to stay with a British family to improve their English. They live with the family, look after the children and may do light household chores in return for their own room to stay in, meals provided and a set amount of pocket money each week. This means that they are not employed as such and should be treated as a member of the family. Home Office guidelines state that an au-pair can work 25 hours per week during the day and 5 hours of evening baby sitting.
Au-pairs offer flexibility and an affordable form of childcare for many families, particularly those with more than one child. However, au-pairs may not have much experience with babies and children and can experience problems with home sickness. You will also find that you cannot claim childcare assistance with your Family Tax Credit as they are not registered as childcare providers with the local authority. Au-pairs are introduced by agencies to families for a one off fee, and agencies can be found in the telephone book or on the internet.
After School and Holiday Care
More employers are now offering flexibility with positions that coincide with school hours. If you are at university or college you may be able to change some lectures or seminars to coincide with school times. Ask for your timetable in advance and find out whether there are several groups on the same course so that you can choose the time of the one you attend.
If you are not in the fortunate position of being able to choose your hours, there is no easy answer to your problem. You could ask your child's school if they know of any after school clubs or extra curricular activities that your child can attend for an evening or two per week. The local authority may also be able to provide some information on after school clubs and activities.
Childminding may be a practical solution, particularly if you already have a younger child looked after. Alternatively, consider an au-pair who can offer flexibility with before and after school care. Other than that, try and meet other parents in the same situation and work something out between you. It may be that you can each take an early afternoon from work per week and take turns to pick the children up, or that you can offer evening baby-sitting in return for after school care.
For school holidays contact the local authority for schemes or again consider a childminder or au-pair. Ask other parents how they cope during holiday times and suggest setting up a shared child care scheme where you each take one or two weeks off during the holiday period and take turns to mind the children.
If you are lacking a baby sitter and want time out for yourself, you could try the following, although remember that it is only a guide.
- Arrange evenings out with other parents and take turns to baby sit, or consider setting up a baby sitting circle with parents in your local area
- Your local authority, usually social services, may already have details of baby sitting circles and registered agencies offering baby sitting services
- Enlist the help of friends and family. This is where an ex partner and extended family are particularly helpful, so try to remain on amicable terms and do not alienate them, view their contact time as some positive time off for you
- Contact your local college and ask if they run childcare courses. They may be able to put you in touch with a student keen to earn a little extra money, and you can ask for references and check that they have been properly vetted to work with children
- The law does not specify a legal age for babysitting duties, although the NSPCC suggests 16 years of age. If you know any teenagers keen to earn some extra pocket money, consider the ages of your children, the maturity of the sitter and the length of time you require them to baby sit
- If you decide to advertise for a sitter or respond to an advertisement, always ask for references and trust your instincts when you meet them, if it doesn't feel right try again
- When you have a chosen a baby sitter, make sure you leave any emergency contact telephone numbers including the doctor's number, and details of your child's bedtime and routine. Leave drinks and snacks and set any ground rules e.g. no visitors to the house