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Childcare decisions often concern working parents long before they actually become parents.
Neither the decision to go back to work or not, nor the childcare choices you make should be the source of any sleepless nights – you’ll have enough of those, but how do you make the choice when it comes to caring for your child? What is the right childcare for you?
When choosing who will be involved in bringing up your child, it is a good idea to look at all the options and get as much information as possible.
Whether it’s a full time, stay-at-home parent, live-in nanny, nanny share, au pair, informal arrangement with friends/relatives, childminder, or nursery, there are passionate advocates of each.
Most working parents will, at some point, have been made to feel guilty by previous generations or well-meaning earth mothers, and parents who choose to stay at home may suffer from ‘super mum’ (‘oh you know Pam, she has eight kids, is MD of an international corporation and voluntarily runs the local youth club’) comparisons.
This all seems rather negative, but actually it’s really liberating: with no right or wrong way of doing things, you are totally free to make your own decisions.
If you are confident that you are well informed about local childcare options and have discussed the issue with the people whose opinions matter to you, you should feel free to make up your own mind about what is best for your child and family.
When choosing childcare it is really important to consider what works for the family as a whole, and not just the child in need of care for an insight into why happy, healthy parents are the best thing a child can have.
Adding on an extra half-hour of childcare to each side of the day, so you get the chance to grab a coffee before getting on with your job, or so you don’t stress if you get caught in traffic may be better for your child and the family as a whole – rather than cutting childcare down to the bare essentials and being continually stressed that you’re late, and exhausted from rushing around so much.
A nursery or childminder that is round the corner from a good friend’s house may be really beneficial for emergencies. It may not have as good an Ofsted report as the nursery that takes 45 minutes to get to, and that is near no one, but if it is somewhere that you feel comfortable with, weigh up the benefits that the location, travelling time and flexibility will have on your child and the rest of your family and make the decision accordingly.
Looking at childcare options, it is important to consider the impact of these issues alongside your research on different childcare settings in order to reduce the stress, confusion and guilt that surround many parents’ childcare choices.
In order to get an accurate picture of the costs involved in staying at home, you need to consider the loss of future earnings as well as the lack of salary. If you are employed, and decide not to return to work, you may be required to pay back some of the maternity benefit you received.
Many parents feel that they can’t afford to stay at home. Conversely, some families feel that if they are both working, they need additional domestic help such as a cleaner which may be something that stay-at-home parents feel they can do without, thus saving money.
This is an emotive issue and parents need to be able to discuss the sacrifices they are willing to make if one parent does want to be the full-time carer of their child.
The stay-at-home parent provides ultimate flexibility for the working parent as they never have to rush home to collect the child from a nursery or childminder, and there is never an attendance problem if the child is ill.
What is important to remember is that the stay-at-home parent, whilst free to do as they please with the child during the day – coffee with friends, trips to the park – has little opportunity for activities which don’t include the child. In order to preserve relationships, the working parent needs to be aware of the demands of his/her partner’s new role and help his/her partner retain identity and interests outside the home.
The most important factor in the success of the stay-at-home arrangement is whether the parents want it – communication between parents is essential to make sure that a parent who enjoys working isn’t feeling pressured into staying at home, and that the parent who will be the sole breadwinner is happy to take on that responsibility and that both parents feel supported and appreciated in their roles.
The nursery setting is stimulating and sociable and for children over 18 months. Research exists which shows that academic achievement and social skills may be better for children in nursery settings than for children who stay at home with a single adult until going to school.
However, research on attachment shows that very young babies benefit from forming bonds with one or two primary carers.
Therefore, parents of children under 12 months who are looking for full-time child care will benefit from a nursery which has a low turnover of staff and a high ratio of key workers to children – some nurseries offer a 1:2 ratio for very young babies.
Good day care can be expensive, especially if you have more than one child. However, there are ways of making it more affordable:
Whilst nurseries are open for set hours, many operate a late/early service, and they are normally open for at least 50 weeks of the year.
This makes it a stable option for children who become settled into their routine and do not have to cope with a variety of different childcare situations. However, it is not a particularly flexible option unless you are happy to pay for childcare that you don’t always use.
Before choosing a nursery, make sure you feel very comfortable with its philosophy, and especially that of the key worker. Ask to see their most recent Ofsted report and talk to parents and other members of staff before making a decision.
As with all childcare arrangements, good communication between parents and the nursery is a key factor in the success of the arrangement.
A common source of stress between parents is the drop-off and pick-ups. By talking this through before looking at nurseries, you can decide whether the nursery should be close to home, or close to a parent’s place of work.
A nursery close to home means that both parents are equally able to drop off or pick up the child, whereas a nursery close to a place of work is more convenient if you work longer hours or need to collect the child quickly (illness etc).
Thinking about whether you want your child to travel far to the nursery each day is also worth considering.
A childminder will normally provide a more intimate arrangement than a nursery and is likely to encourage a young child to form healthy, emotional attachments.
If you are happy that the childminder is able to provide sufficient one to one time with your child to enable a healthy bond to develop, it can be easier for the child to settle into this situation as it is a home-from-home setting.
Childminders are generally cheaper than nurseries. Check policies on illness and holidays to ensure you understand how the finances will work. Some childminders charge extra for meals etc so make sure you know exactly what you’re paying for before you sign the contract.
The childcare vouchers and tax credits can also be used for registered childminders, but you need to check that your childminder is registered for them.
Although, like nurseries, childminders are required to be inspected by Ofsted, childminders are less regimented and arrangements can be made to suit specific working patterns so there is usually more flexibility.
If possible, you should build in time at the end or start of the day to chat with the childminder. It’s tempting to want to drop your child off and race to work, or pick him up and get home after a long day, but allowing an extra 10 minutes, preferably at both ends of the day, will reduce the stress and facilitate good communication, easing the transition from home to childminder and back again.
It is this relationship which makes the childminder arrangement more personal and intimate than a nursery.
Always ask to see the Ofsted report and discuss your child with the childminder to make sure you are happy with the environment, activities and meals that are being provided.
It is also worth asking about the ages of the other children that will be in the house at the same time, as unlike a nursery, there may be a wide range of ages and you may feel that your child will benefit from having older children, or you may prefer him to be with children of approximately the same age.
Traditionally perceived as the option for the wealthy, in families with two or more children, nannies may not be any more expensive than nursery or childminder places, and they are able to assist in domestic tasks relating to the children (e.g. keeping their room clean, doing their laundry and cooking meals for them), so they may save you time and energy over and above looking after your children.
The costs of registered nannies may also be reduced by the tax credits and voucher system, but only if they are registered with Ofsted which is not obligatory.
A more affordable option is a nanny share. This can work in one of two ways – the nanny can split her time between two families – working part of the week with one family, and the remainder with another.
This works well with part-time work, especially job-shares as you need to find another family whose working hours fit in with your own. If both families agree, this arrangement provides good, familiar emergency childcare if necessary, but this and other arrangements for babysitting/additional hours etc need discussing with the nanny and the other family beforehand.
The other arrangement for a nanny share is where two families share one nanny. This is more like a childminding arrangement for the family whose house is not being used for the childcare.
This may suit some parents who do not like having other people in their house when they are out, but others may prefer that their child was cared for in his own home, and so may prefer the nanny to work from their house.
Again, communication is key – both between yourselves and the nanny and yourselves and the other family. Nannies offer the most flexible childcare arrangement as many are willing to babysit and irregular hours can be catered for.
Full-time nannies often develop strong bonds with their charges and it can be upsetting for a parent when the child chooses to call for the nanny when he is upset rather than the parent.
This is more likely to happen with a nanny than in a nursery or with a childminder, and it is something that parents need to be prepared for. By facilitating a childcare arrangement that allows children to form strong bonds, you should feel good, and as a child grows up he will understand the different roles of the people in his life.
Try not to compete with the nanny for your child’s affection, but make sure that they know that you love them and are happy that they like their nanny.
Qualified live-in nannies are expensive (£35k a year, depending on location) but au pairs are a much cheaper alternative. However, they have no qualifications in childcare and their main objective in being an au pair is usually to learn English, so communication may be an issue.
Au pairs are flexible, but there are safeguards in place to prevent them from being exploited which can mean that they are not a full-time child care solution.
It is vital to use a reputable agency and discuss your individual situation with them, in order that they will have the best chance of finding you a suitable au pair.
The relationship that your child has with an au pair should be a strong one, and it is important that your relationship is positive and that the au pair understands and agrees with your priorities. Boundaries regarding personal space and use of the home’s amenities need to be clear and established early on.
Having a stranger in your house can place a strain on other relationships: parents may not have the privacy they are used to, especially in the evenings when the children are in bed. Other family members who visit regularly may have difficulty in adjusting to another person in your life.
Again, communicate honestly and openly and try to resolve small problems before they escalate. The fact that the au pair lives in your house makes it a much more intense relationship than any of the other childcare options and so whilst it may be incredibly rewarding if it goes well, it can also be the most difficult to make work.
This is the most cost-effective solution for many parents and there are moves within the government to recognise the contribution family and friends play in providing childcare and offering some form of tax relief for parents who use this type of childcare.
Grandparents are increasingly being used to provide childcare, but this option is only available to families who live nearby and whose parents are fit enough and willing to care for young children.
Most commonly used for part-time working arrangements, reciprocal childcare may work well with a friend whose working week fits with yours.
This is essentially free childcare as you each care for the other’s child when you are at work. However, there are common difficulties that arise with this arrangement.
For example, a lack of emergency childcare – often parents who use one of the paid childcare options above, use friends and relatives in emergency situations (such as when a child is ill and cannot go to childminder/nursery, when there are extra work commitments, etc) but if your friends and relatives are providing the regular childcare, there is no one left for those ‘emergencies’.
The relationships that you have with your family and friends may need to change – it may be acceptable for grandparents to spoil a child that they see infrequently, but you may not want them to be indulgent with a child that they are caring for regularly.
Friends may have different approaches to discipline, meals, activities etc and getting written agreement before entering into any childcare sharing arrangement is a good idea.
This option tends to be the most erratic, and it is important to consider the effect of piecemeal childcare on a child’s development. Whilst children are incredibly resilient and can cope with a range of situations, to form healthy attachments young children benefit from predictable routines with a few easily identifiable carers with whom they can bond.
Parenting is tough, and you won’t know whether you’ve done a good job for years, so there is no point in trying to analyse the impact of every decision you make on your child’s development.
There is also nothing that says an easy option is the wrong one, simply because it’s easy (it doesn’t make it right either, but anything that reduces stress and exhaustion is really beneficial to families with young children).
You may have a family member who is ideally placed and very willing to look after your little one, or the local nursery may be exceptionally good and you may have friends that already go there.
A friend in your neighbourhood may just be retraining as a childminder, or you may be offered voluntary redundancy and choose to take a break from work for a while.
As there is no right or wrong type of childcare, each parent must make an individual assessment of their situation, their needs (including the needs of the child), and the options available.
Once you have done that, relax and enjoy the life you have chosen, and if it isn’t working, or your needs change, reassess the situation; nothing is set in stone.
The best thing you can do for your child is to provide them with loving parents who are happy, healthy and at ease with themselves, so that they can grow up with that as their idea of ‘normal’ and be likely to adopt the same approach to life. If you bear this in mind when choosing childcare, you and your child are likely to be fine.
Dr Amanda Gummer has a PhD in psychology. She set up FUNdamentals in 2004, an organisation which specialises in child development and family dynamics.
Amanda was an associate lecturer in Child Development with the Open University until the end of 2006. She is currently involved in an advisory member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education, and is an advisor to the Conservative Party’s Childhood Enquiry. She has two children.