Childcare and going back to work

Most women feel terrible about leaving their children and going back to work, especially if their child is still a baby. Regular media scare stories about cruel nannies and neglectful nurseries can be unbearable. But more than half of mothers whose youngest child is under five work, as do nearly 80% of mothers with children between five and ten. And the vast majority of children thrive with their carers, often developing long-standing attachments to them.

While many mothers have to work to help pay the mortgage, women increasingly want to combine having children with a fulfilling career. However traumatic it may be to find childcare (and it isn't for everyone), going to work does have its advantages, if only because you can go to the toilet and eat lunch in peace (depending on where you work).

Nannies | Childminders | Nurseries | Nursery schools | Au pairs 

What is high-quality childcare?

Finding top-quality childcare is not an exact science but there's a growing consensus from experts as to what it is:

  1. Consistency of care. Particularly for children under five. Ad hoc arrangements with loads of different carers are not good for a child of any age.
  2. Proper attention. It's important that, whatever childcare arrangement you choose, the 'staff ratios' are high (one adult to three babies under two, for example, or one adult to four children between the ages of two and three).
  3. Affection and stimulation. Children under five need a warm and loving environment, where they are stimulated and educated in ways appropriate for their age. By the age of three, they also need to mix and learn to play with other children.
  4. A safe environment. Obviously.

Because such care is not always easy to find, it's best to work out what you need and how much you can spend as soon as possible. Ideally, if you can face it, you should start talking to other local mothers and sending off to your local authority for information on childcare as soon as, if not before, your baby's born. Nursery places for children under two are scarce and to secure a place in some areas, mad as it seems, you may need to put your foetus's name down (you can always change it later).

Be clear about what you need. If you have a baby, then you need childcarers who are qualified and/or experienced. If you have a child who goes to school and needs picking up, after-school care and looking after in the school holidays, then a mother's help may be suitable.

Childcare is phenomenally expensive for working families. After a while, you will wonder why virtually all your wages are going to pay for someone else to enjoy your child. At this point, some mothers do stop working; others realise that it's not forever and that state schools are free. (Or that, if you're sending your child to a private school, at least you'll already be used to coughing up lots of money each month.)

But even with the best childcare in the world, working mothers often feel guilty and miss their children. If you can afford to stay at home with your children, you may feel this is the best option until they're older and more independent. Or you may be able to negotiate flexible hours or work part-time for a while. (Being a full-time mother, of course, is the toughest job of them all.)

It's typical to feel a bit vulnerable when setting up childcare but don't let anyone intimidate you. Go with your gut feeling, backed up by references, Ofsted reports (on nurseries and childminders) and feedback from other mothers. Be strong. If you ever feel unhappy or unsure about your child's wellbeing, do something about it. Don't worry that you're making a fuss or that it will be unpleasant to discuss issues with whoever's looking after your child. Your child comes first and what suits one child may not make another one happy. But also bear in mind that no childcare is perfect - probably not even your own.

Baby and toddler care

Most babies whose parents work are looked after by relatives or childminders. Nurseries and nannies are the more expensive option (although, if you can 'share' a nanny with another family, it can work out more reasonably). Au pairs are not meant to look after children under five. Mothers' helps should also not be expected to look after young children on their own for long periods of time.


For a baby, you want a nanny who is experienced with babies. You may want qualifications, such as an NNEB or a CACHE diploma in childcare and education. Some mothers want newly qualified nannies, so they can mould them to their family's ways. But newly qualified nannies may not have the experience or confidence that other families might value. Nannyshares can work - but can also be fraught with difficulties in negotiating with another family about issues such as food, routines and, later, discipline. Above all, you need to trust your nanny and go with your gut feelings about whether your baby will be happy with her.


  • A nanny comes to your house (or may live in which is cheaper by about £50 to £100 a week) and so your baby is cared for in familiar surroundings and you can negotiate hours that fit in with your work
  • If you have more than one child, a nanny may be good value (compared to paying for several places at a nursery/childminder)
  • A nanny may do your baby's laundry and make meals and do baby-related shopping
  • A nanny is one-on-one for your child - arguably what nature intended
  • If your child is sick, a nanny will look after her (unlike nursery and, maybe, a childminder)
  • With luck you'll have continuity of care, which is great for your child and subsequent children
  • You may be able to leave your child with your nanny for the odd weekend away or evening out


  • Your nanny is unregulated - no one official checks on her, unlike a childminder or nursery. Some nannies do voluntarily register on the Ofsted Childcare Register, though, which means you can be confident they have been police-checked, done a first-aid course and had some training.
  • Your nanny may be poached by another family or want to travel - it's not unusual to have to find a new one after a year
  • You may find it hard when your baby seems to love your nanny more than she loves you and/or if your nanny is younger and trendier than you are
  • Your baby will not necessarily meet other children unless your nanny takes your baby to toddler groups
  • A nanny is not cheap, especially in London. On top of this, you must pay your nanny's National Insurance and tax. If she is registered with Ofsted, though, you can apply for tax credits
  • Many nannies like being in sole charge of their babies - this may be tricky (for you and her) if you fancy working at home a couple of days a week
  • Nannies may be young girls who get demoralised and demotivated by working with a baby all day - social isolation can affect them as much as it can a new mother
  • If your nanny gets ill, then you need someone else to look after your baby

How to find one

  • Nanny agencies advertise in telephone directories, the local paper and parenting magazines. They charge a (hefty) fee, and what you get for your money varies, but they're meant to vet nannies' references. Ask around to find a good agency - some visit parents to check their specific childcare needs.
  • Put an advert in The Lady magazine (but be prepared to be intimidated by what other families offer eg separate penthouse flat with satellite TV and use of villa in south of France).
  • Put an advert in your local paper - but be specific about what you ask for (experience/driver/non-smoker etc).
  • Spread the word around other parents and nannies that you're looking.
  • Put an advert up at baby groups and in local schools - ask the school secretary - as nannies dropping children off at school may know of others and may themselves be looking for other jobs.

How to choose one

Work out what you want and make a list of things you will ask each applicant, such as:

  • Do you smoke?
  • Do you drive?
  • How much experience do you have with children the same age as my child?
  • What sorts of things would you do with my child?
  • How would you deal with tantrums/bad behaviour?
  • Would you let my child watch TV?
  • Do you have first-aid training?
  • Would you take my baby swimming or to toddler clubs?
  • Would you babysit?

Interview initially on the phone. Ask those you like to come round and meet the children. Ask a friend or your partner to be present - sometimes two opinions are better than one.

See how they interact with your child: do they talk to him or her first, do they squeeze them so tight your baby squeals with pain? One mum we know deliberately spills a cup of orange juice over prospective nannies to see how calmly they react.

Chase references. Ask about sick leave/reliability and ability to be on time. Ask about how affectionate they are with children.

The right personality is more important than experience and qualifications - someone who will look after and be affectionate to your child but be in charge in a non-smothering or bullying way.

Once you have chosen

  • Discuss sick pay, holiday pay and entitlement
  • Let your child have a period of settling in, with you overseeing the nanny
  • Discuss what food she will make your child and the routine you do/do not want her to have
  • Discuss discipline
  • Discuss hygiene (when making up bottles, preparing food) and tidiness
  • Try to be tactful


Childminders are registered by Ofsted and have to attend various training courses, including a childminding training course, a child protection course and a paediatric first aid course. They also have to ensure their home and garden is 'safe' with regard to cupboard and window locks, stair gates, fireguards, first aid kit and so on.

The childminder and her family have to undergo criminal record checks and the safety of children in a childminder's care is paramount. For further information on childminders and becoming a childminder, contact the NCMA (National Childminding Association), your local council's Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership, or call Ofsted on 0845 601 4771.


  • They are usually mothers and so experienced (although the experience might not have been a good one)
  • They will often have at least one other child in their care, so your child will have company
  • They usually live nearby and so are handy but you will have to get your child up and ready to drop him or her off at your childminder's house
  • They are cheaper than a nanny
  • Their Ofsted registration means their home is considered a safe environment and they have had some training, including first aid
  • You may get continuity of care
  • They are often tapped in to local 'carer networks', regularly visiting libraries, playgroups and swimming pools
  • They are required by Ofsted to deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage (as nurseries do), providing a stimulating learning environment, with play activities suitable for each child's stage of development.


  • Their home may not be as nice as yours (although it may be tidier), and your child will have to get used to a new environment
  • The childminder may have other children to look after, some of whom may need fetching/dropping off at playgroup/school (with your child in tow). They can have three children under five and, though Ofsted will have assessed her ability to cope, this is more than many mothers would like to look after on their own for eight hours a day
  • When your childminder is sick, you will need someone else to look after your child

How to find one

  • Your local authority has a list
  • Ask other parents locally - personal recommendation is always helpful
  • Advertise for one in local paper/newsagents

How to choose one

  • Draw up a list of questions about outings, other children they look after, routines, food, sleeping arrangements, holidays, experience
  • If the childminder drives, find out if her car has child seats that are safely fitted
  • Chase references - speak and, if possible, visit other mothers who have used her
  • Visit the childminder's home with your child and see how your child and the childminder get on
  • See what activities go on and what toys there are to play with
  • Is there a garden for your child to play in? (Note: if the lawn and beds are perfect, children probably don't get out there much)
  • Check they're Ofsted registered


If you're really lucky, you'll work for a wonderful employer who runs a creche. If not, you'll probably have to find a private nursery - there are some local authority ones but they only have few places for young children and priority may be given on the basis of need. Even private nurseries have long waiting lists for children under two. Check there are no potty training requirements with nurseries that take children over two.


  • They don't get sick - there are always staff to look after your child (except perhaps in times of flu epidemics)
  • There are other children to learn to play and socialise with
  • Your child will be offered the chance to do things you'd probably rather not do at home such as body painting, water play and experimenting with spaghetti
  • Your child may start as a baby and continue until he or she is four or more and thus have some continuity of care
  • At least some staff will have qualifications and experience
  • They're regulated by Ofsted
  • Premises may be roomy with outside space to run around
  • Nurseries are open pretty much the year round


  • You may feel your baby needs more one-on-one attention than nursery care provides and that depositing her in a nursery from 8am until 6.30pm every day will be damaging. There's no evidence this is so if the care given is high quality. Even so, it is better for both you and your child to try to avoid long nursery days at the beginning.
  • Nurseries may be expensive and you usually need to give a month's deposit
  • There are very few places for babies under two, so you need to book early (so early your child may not have been born yet)
  • If your child is sick, you may not be able to take it to nursery
  • If you have more than one child, you may be financially ruined

How to find one

  • Ask mothers in your area
  • Look in the telephone directory/local papers/toyshop advertising boards
  • Your local authority will have a list

How to choose one

  • Visit with your child - you may have to make an appointment.
  • Is there a lively happy buzz in the air? Do you feel good about this nursery?
  • Is there a quiet place for babies?
  • Ideally you will be looking for the nursery to satisfy your child when she is three and above as well as while she is a baby, so bear this in mind as you look around and ask questions.
  • Ask other mothers and ask the nursery for references.
  • Ask to see the latest Ofsted report on the nursery.
  • Does it have a nice safe and large outdoor area with toys in (this is very important)?
  • Do the children get taken out - to the local park or swimming?
  • What is the staff ratio? There should be 1:3 for children under two and 1:4 for children between the ages of two and four.
  • Are the rooms clean and spacious, light and well-decorated and stocked with toys?
  • Is the day unstructured or is there a routine? If there is a routine, what is it?
  • Where do the children have a nap? Does a staff member sit with them?
  • Do babies and toddlers mix for some of the time (which is good for development if they're closely watched)?
  • What activities do they do? Is there singing and dancing? (French isn't really necessary at this age)
  • Watch to see whether when the children cry they're picked up and cuddled
  • Do carers intervene a lot or do they facilitate more (research shows they should act as more shadowy characters - letting children dictate the games they are playing and how they are relating to each other)
  • Ask about discipline - the classic being 'What you would do if another child bit my child?' The wrong answer is that they would bite him or her back. These aren't biblical times.
  • What are mealtimes like? These should be times for children to communicate with each other and learn how to eat - not hurried times to get through quickly with minimal mess. Food should be fresh and nutritious - some nurseries ask you to provide food, which seems a shame as this means tins instead of the greens and pasta you would, of course, be serving up at home.
  • What is the turnover of staff? You can ask this and also ask how long the manager has been there for. Over a few years and you're laughing, unless she leaves shortly afterwards. If you're brave enough, ask for qualifications and rates of pay for the staff - low paid staff move quickly on and aren't going to feel that loving towards any child they are providing slave labour for.
  • Does the nursery have a key worker system (this is important as this means one person is primarily responsible for your child)?
  • Does the nursery invite parents' opinions and hold meetings with them? Do staff communicate what your child has done that day?
  • Does the nursery welcome criticism (well, who does)?
  • Is the nursery happy for you to pop in whenever?
  • Ask about issues that concern you, such as vegetarian or kosher food, perhaps. Do you want a multicultural nursery experience? (Not so easy if you live in the home counties)
  • How much independence is the child allowed to have?

When you've found a nursery

  • Be prepared for your child to howl once you hand her over to nursery staff - they usually stop once you can't hear them any more. Phone later to see if they are OK.
  • Drop in at different times to see what's going on.
  • Settle your child in over a week's period - don't expect to be able to go right back to work full on.
  • Prepare for your child's immune system to be floored by meeting ten snotty kids with different cold viruses and tummy bugs. Be prepared for your own immune system to be floored.
  • Talk to staff and ask about their day and your child's. Be grateful and appreciative and take a general interest in the nursery.
  • Tell the staff (who should ask you anyway) about your child's routine and likes and dislikes. Some nurseries encourage children to bring something of their own with them that they are fond of, for comfort.

Children three and over

Nursery schools

Look for everything you would look for in a nursery for a baby plus:

  • How staff get along with the children. Friends are more important in some ways to children at this age than other adults - so nurseries are good for children - as long as the adults do not overshadow them but let them interact with each other.
  • Ask if the children can play independently with each other?
  • Are children allowed to be independent - go to the toilet on their own, for example, or get a drink from the fridge or choose to play in the garden? Childcare experts think independence is important.
  • What sort of educational activities are there? Are children encouraged to learn through play, do they learn pre-numeracy and pre-literacy skills? How does the nursery help them learn to build relationships?
  • Do staff comfort and reassure children when needed? Do they seem accessible?

Au pairs and mother's helps

Au pairs shouldn't look after preschoolers but, if you have a school nearby that has a nursery attached but which only runs school hours, you may need help after school. For children under five, a mother's help may be more suitable. She will not have qualifications and may or may not be experienced or British.

Mother's helps cost about £200 a week and are just that - a help - not a replacement. Mother's helps may or may not live in. They can be found from agencies and also by advertising in the local paper and in parenting magazines like Nursery World (which often has to be ordered - no newsagents stock it round our way). You can expect her to do some shopping, cleaning and cooking but the best use of a mother's help is for the twilight hours when the kids are out of school and you're still stuck in traffic.

Au pairs are usually available from agencies and are always, at least initially, live in. Often they're young girls, it may be their first time away from home and, although you may be lucky and get a slightly older or more mature one, they're likely to become your oldest child.

There are often cultural problems as to what is acceptable behaviour (from both parties) and ground rules about time off, responsibilities, phone and car use, bringing boyfriends home and when they will attend college for English lessons (which is why they're here in the first place). Don't expect too much of your au pair (eg just ask her to pick up children from school and babysit a couple of nights and maybe do a bit of shopping, ironing and cleaning) and things may turn out all right. You're expected to treat her as one of the family - but if you do that, of course, she could be very unhappy; treat her more as a guest or very distant relative.

Last updated: about 3 years ago