Are you a working parent? Do you want your child to be looked after by one carer in an informal, homely environment? If the answer's yes, then a childminder may be the type of childcare you're after.
Childminders look after children in their (ie the childminder's) home. There can be more of a 'family' feel to a childminder set-up, often with children of different ages to play with.
The law says childminders can look after up to six children under eight years old, although no more than three of those must be aged under five. They're usually parents themselves, and may have their own children to look after, too, or their children may be school-aged.
"I chose my childminder because on our first visit, I had to prise my son away from her when it was time to leave!" Stephanie1974
Activities may be less structured than at nursery, but all childminders in England have to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage, a structure of care, learning and development for children from birth to age five.
Your child's day may be punctuated by school pick-ups, but this can be a bonus - it's an outing and sometimes a chance for a baby or toddler to visit the school he/she will eventually attend:
"A school run is really not a bad thing for younger children to experience. The excitement amongst toddlers, or even younger children, when I say, 'let's go and pick the big children up' is wonderful. The mix of older and younger children can also provide many positive life experiences." ThePrisoner
Works from her own home
Usually has fixed working times - and may not be able to accommodate certain pick-up times
Will bill you for outings/activities (some childminders may include certain outings, such as a toddler group in their fees)
Will tell you when she is on holiday - you have to work around it
Can care for many children (within regulatory limits) - often of varying ages.
Won't do any household tasks apart from those relating to her own household
Charges per child and sets her own prices
Childminders have greater scope for spontaneity and making the most of a sunny or snowy day as an opportunity for outdoor play and learning.
"The benefit of a childminder is that children have the same constant care from one person and lunch is prepared for them when they need it, be it 12pm or 2pm. It is a home-from-home environment." Alibubbles
Some parents say sensitive children do better with childminders.
Childminders have to have a qualification, a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check, a valid first aid certificate and training, and be registered with Ofsted on the Early Years Register (EYR). Childminders' homes are inspected regularly to ensure they're safe and child-friendly.
Childminders are self-employed and take care of their own tax and NI contributions. And they should also hold public liability insurance. Their fees are usually cheaper than nurseries and nannies.
A lot of the horror stories about childminders stem from before regulation of childminders (banish your mental image of child sharing Big Mac with pet pitbull in front of Jeremy Kyle).
Childminders are now very strictly regulated by Ofsted and have yearly checks for health and safety and hygiene (smoking, for example, is not allowed in the Ofsted rules).
It obviously comes down to what you feel comfortable with. No other adult is watching how the childminder looks after the children in her care on a particular day (cue the Jeremy Kyle paranoid fantasy).
"You have no control over pets, visitors, outings etc," says one mother. But another counters: "Many childminders do not allow any visitors at all when minding. I certainly don't and I'm not unusual in this."
One downside of childminders versus other forms of childcare is that if your childminder is ill, you'll have to make alternative arrangements; ditto when your childminder goes on holiday.
And - important this - bear in mind that if you have very firm ideas about particular schools of parenting, childminders will also have their own ideas about parenting and you cannot dictate yours.
There are three ways of going about this:
1. Word of mouth
2. Local resources, eg your council, and local schools and playgroups
However you go about it, the important thing is not to leave it too late - you need to start looking at least several months before your return to work. Personal recommendation is invaluable, but be warned, it can be hard to find a childminder with spaces.
One mum advises: "Visit a few childminders and get references, read Ofsted reports and, above all, trust your instincts."
Each local council in England has a Family Information Service and it will be able to tell you about childcare options in your area, including lists of registered childminders, and costs - call 0800 2 346 346.
Alternatively, you can search for childcare online.
Usually cheaper than other forms of childcare
One-to-one care in a home environment
Usually more mature than nursery staff
Should offer home-cooked food
Usually plenty of fresh air
Possible, within limits, for children to follow their own routine
Some childminders will be able to take your child when she is ill
Other children being minded may turn into playmates and surrogate siblings for your child
May have more flexible hours than a nursery
May be able to provide ad hoc childcare other than that which you have contracted for
Dependent on one person (will need cover for sickness/holiday)
Less structured activities than a nursery
Not all activities will be age-appropriate
Younger children may spend time being ferried to and from school for older children
Some people use their friends to look after their children. Bear in mind again that if you pay your friend to look after your child, then he or she will need to be registered as a childminder for the arrangement to be legal.
Some parents 'swap' a few childcare hours per week so that you look after their children for a few hours, and vice versa.
This can work, although one Mumsnetter warns that mixing personal and professional lives is a tricky balance: "You will always feel indebted to her and it's very hard to move things on to a professional level with a friend."
If you have agreed a swap, then you will also have to look after her children for a few hours a week. If the thought of this makes you blanch, then this is probably not the arrangement for you.
Word-of-mouth is really the best recommendation where childminders are concerned, but your local council's Family Information Service should provide you with a list of local registered childminders.
You can then ring round a few to see if any have vacancies for a child of your child's age at the times you need – if so, arrange to visit them at home.
"The National Childminding Association website is a good resource for information about finding a childminder," advises one mum. "And always take up references. You could ask for names of other parents to talk to about the service."