How to choose the right childcare

children at a nursery

Choosing the right childcare for your child – and your family as a whole – is one of the first really big decisions you have to make as a parent and there’s a lot to consider. But the good news is there’s a multitude of options available so you’re certain to find the fit that’s right for you somewhere.

Many of us embark on parenthood with a vague plan along the lines of: stop work for somewhere between three and 12 months, then find a nursery/childminder/nanny/granny to look after our baby while we will return to our old job full of renewed vigour and vim.

But as the end of maternity leave approaches, the reality of handing your baby over to someone else can feel suddenly a bit anxiety-inducing – not to mention expensive.
However much you need or want to work, it’s a rare parent who skips back to their job with no qualms whatsoever (though pat on the back to you if you do, of course!).

If you’re more in the ‘slightly anxious and impendingly poor’ category, rest assured, you will manage. More than half of all mums with children under five go back to work. Just look around your commuter train or bus and reflect that each of your fellow passengers has been conveyed from the precarious condition of infancy to fully-fledged, tablet-reading adulthood by parents who worked, or didn't work, or worked some of the time, and used all manner of childcare. There’s simply no telling.

On top of that, working can make you feel fulfilled in ways that simply aren’t catered for by singing The Wheels on the Bus and changing nappies. And, of course, the financial benefits will definitely come in handy, too. So now you’ve made the decision, all that's left is to decide which option is best for you.

What are the most popular childcare options?

  • Nursery. This is one of the most popular solutions and it allows your child to begin socialising in a supportive and caring environment. Like all these things, it’s horses for courses and there are some nurseries you will love and some you’ll loathe, so make sure you visit, talk to staff and do your research.
  • Childminder. At a childminder’s your child will encounter fewer other children than they would at nursery. But if you think she would benefit from a smaller group and the domestic surroundings of a childminder’s home, then this could be option for you.
  • Nanny. By far the most expensive option but, in other ways, perhaps the most convenient. A nanny comes to your home or, in some cases, lives in with your family, so there’s no nursery run – your child simply stays at home (and goes out to groups and classes probably) and the childcare comes to you.
  • Family help. If you’re lucky enough to have a supportive family network then they might be able to provide some childcare. Grandparents can be particularly helpful if they’re nearby, and they often make excellent carers – affectionate, committed to your children’s well-being and with previous experience (presumably).

How do I choose the best childcare?

Over the years, Mumsnetters have come up with a set of guiding rules when it comes to choosing childcare, which might help you when you’re making your choice.

  • Start looking early because, even though childcare can be expensive, it’s not always easy to come by. So sound out other parents, family members and investigate what’s available in your area as soon as your baby’s born, if not before.
  • The quality of childcare you choose is more important than the form it takes – the right childminder might be better than a mediocre nursery, even though you’d set your heart on a nursery. Equally, you might not find a nanny you’re happy with but a willing and enthusiastic granny might be even more invested in your child’s wellbeing and cost you thousands less a year. Just keep an open mind.
  • You must do what suits your family. Circumstances, lifestyle, beliefs and finances will all feed into your choice. There is no one solution which is best for everyone.
  • Remember there was no ‘golden age’ when all children were cared for exclusively by their mothers who were able to stimulate them non-stop while baking scones.

Childcare questions to ask yourself

PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, suggests considering the following when choosing childcare ready for your return to work:

What are my child's needs?

You know your child better than anyone. Think carefully about what type of childcare is likely to suit them. Would they feel more secure in a small, home-based setting with a childminder? Or would they benefit from a larger, busier nursery? The main thing is that your child is in an environment which is safe, nurturing and stimulating.

How many hours of childcare do I need?

You may work traditional full-time hours and need childcare from 8am-6pm. Or you may work part time and be in need of only half days or care for part of the week. If you work shifts then you might find you need 'out-of-hours' childcare.

There will be different childcare options in your local community that can meet these needs; you just need a clear idea of what pattern of care you think you'll need to make finding them easier. See our in-depth guide to finding the right childcare for your family.

Don't forget that all employees are able to request flexible working and their employer must deal with the request in a reasonable manner – so perhaps consider whether asking for different working hours might help you manage.

Can I access free early education in my area?

The Government gives local authorities funding to provide a part-time early years education place for all three-and four-year-olds, and for two-year-olds from low-income families. Your child will be able to take up their place from the term after their third birthday. So, if your child turns three in October, they would be entitled to their funded place from the beginning of the spring term (January). Early education can be delivered in any registered childcare setting, but good or outstanding providers will be given priority by the local authority, so it's always best to check that your provider can offer this.

Many nurseries and childminders are able to provide the free early education entitlement as part of ongoing care, meaning that the cost for those sessions is provided by the local authority, reducing your bill.

What learning and play opportunities do I want my child to have?

Different settings will offer different kinds of opportunity, including Montessori (child-led) play, forest schools and the sort of traditional occupation (play doh and fingerpainting) you might remember from your own childhood.

There is the option to use more than one provider, which may give your child opportunities to experience play and early learning in different settings. This will get them accustomed to moving around and could teach them to be adaptable, rather than wedded to routines, but it may end up being a pain for you paperwork-wise and with remembering where they should be and when – and of course they won’t have the same continuity of care.

Once you've considered these sort of questions, you should have a clearer idea of the type of childcare that's likely to best support you and your child.