Using a childminder

Childminder with two children

Choosing childcare is a big decision for parents to make and a personal one, too. And a childcare choice doesn’t get much more personal than with one person in his or her own home. Here are some things to consider if you’re thinking about using a childminder when you return to work

Should I use a childminder?

Childminders are a great option if you’re looking for flexibility, a homely environment and plenty of one-on-one attention. Most childminders are willing to collect older children from school or playgroup, and will also help cover unusual working hours, too, so they can grow with you and offer flexibility in unforeseen circumstances.

The law states that they can only look after up to six children under the age of eight and of those, only three can be under five and only one under 12 months. So your child is likely to receive quite a lot of one-on-one attention, something which appeals to many parents, particularly those who feel the environment of a nursery might be too ‘big’ for their child.

For many parents, a home-from-home environment is important – some children might find this setting more comfortable and relaxing and it can feel somehow less of a wrench for you to leave them with one person whom you know well in their own living room, rather than in a melee of carers and children eating porridge.

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.

And while your child’s day may be punctuated by the school run to collect older children, it’s an outing, and often means the school your child will later attend will be familiar to them. The school run really isn’t a bad thing for younger children to experience – many toddlers find it really exciting to go and collect the ‘big children’, and the mix of older and younger children can provide positive life experiences.

Because their timetables are less rigid, childminders also have a greater scope for spontaneity – they can make the most of the (rare) sunny and snowy days and chuck out the timetable to get outside and enjoy it.

It obviously comes down to what you feel comfortable with, but remember, a lot of the apocryphal horror stories about childminders come from before regulation – banish the mental image of your child sharing a Big Mac with a pitbull, in front of Jeremy Kyle. It's really not like that.

However, it is worth noting that you’ll have no control over pets, visitors and outings – if these are things that concern you, be sure to consider them when picking your childminder.

Also remember that if your child is ill, you’ll have to make other arrangements; ditto when your childminder goes on holiday.

And bear in mind that if you have firm ideas about schooling and parenting, so might your childminder – and these ideas might be quite different from your own, so it’s worth asking lots of questions beforehand to make sure you’re on the same page over anything you feel strongly about.

Childminders at a glance

  • Self-employed
  • Work from their home
  • Usually have fixed working hours – but many will accommodate certain pick-up times
  • Will bill you for outings/activities
  • Charge per child and set their own price
  • Will take holidays which you’ll have to work around

Qualifications, regulations and fees for childminders

Every childminder must be trained, have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check (formerly CRB), and a valid first aid certificate.

They must also be registered with Ofsted on the Early Years Register (EYR) and have their homes routinely checked and inspected to ensure they’re safe and child-friendly.

Childminders are self-employed and take care of their own tax and National Insurance contributions, and they should also hold public liability insurance.

How to find a childminder

There are three main ways to find a childminder:

  • Word of mouth
  • Local resources, eg your council, family centres and playgroups
  • Online. Local social media sites are often a good place to start or there may be local childcare sites where childminders advertise when they have spaces

However you go about it, be sure not to leave it too late – it’s recommended that you start looking at least several months before you return to work because childminding spaces can fill up very quickly.

How to choose the right childminder

Get the basics out the way first and check their registration and insurance documents and ask if they’re a member of their professional organisation. You’re looking for a quality childcare experience, so don’t be afraid to ask what the outcome of their last inspection was; to see their policies and procedures or to chat to some of the parents whose children they look after. Childminder out on walk

Childminders will often take children out and about in the community – to libraries, play sessions, on nursery and school runs etc – so ask what a typical day or week will look like. It’s also worth asking about snacks and eating; assuming healthy eating is important to you, check that they feel the same way.

“Visit a few childminders and get references, read Ofsted reports and, above all, trust your instincts."

Each local council has a Family Information Service which will be able to tell you about childcare options in your area, and will have lists of registered childminders and costs – call 0800 2 346 346. You can also find out more information from PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years.

How does informal childminding work?

Some people ask friends to look after their children, or have family who will do childcare but remember, if they are being paid, they need to be registered as a childminder in order for the arrangement to be legal.

Other parents ‘swap’ childcare hours, so that you look after their children for a couple of days, and vice versa. But, as one Mumsnetter warns, mixing personal and professional lives is a tricky balance: “You will always feel indebted to them and it can be hard to move things onto a professional level with a friend.”

What are the pros and cons of using a childminder?

Here are a few things to consider that might help you decide whether a childminder is the right option for your family.

Pros of a childminder

  • Usually cheaper than other forms of childcare
  • A good amount of one-to-one care
  • Continuity of care – it’s always just one person
  • Less institutionalised
  • May have more flexible hours than a nursery
  • Can sometimes provide ad hoc childcare

Cons of a childminder

  • You’re dependent on one person, so will need cover for sickness/holiday
  • Fewer structured activities than a nursery
  • Not all activities will be age-appropriate
  • Younger children may spend a lot of time being ferried to and from school for older children