We know how it goes. One minute you're enjoying the coos of your newborn baby, the next minute it's panic stations because you're heading back to work and still haven't lined up childcare. On the other hand, it would come as no surprise to learn you're researching options before you even fall pregnant – tales of impossibly long waiting lists are legendary.

So many options, but sometimes little choice

When there are so many different kinds of care, how do you know which will suit you and your child's needs? And what happens if your preferred type of childcare just isn't available? For some desperate parents, the need for child care – any childcare – can threaten to overshadow the essential requirement for quality childcare.

We're here to help you work out which is the best childcare option for your family, and how to find the best of care for your wee ones.

Outside the home or at home care?

The first decision you'll probably need to make is whether you want to use an external childcare service, or if you'd prefer a carer to come to your home.

External childcare options:

  • Long day care centres (birth to 5 years) – also called day nurseries, day care centres or crèches – provide childcare for children in a group setting. You can enrol your child for full-time or part-time care, but the days will probably be fixed and will be longer than some other childcare options (for example,  7.00am to 6.00pm) to provide support for families who work or study.
  • Family day care (birth to 12 years) provides home-based small group care for children up to 12 years. Care is usually full-time or part-time but may include up to 24-hour care, occasional care, vacation care, emergency care and before- and after-school care. Hours offered are usually similar to long day care centres. Family day care workers are regulated, assessed and managed by a family day care agency or local council. Their homes must comply with safety guidelines and there is a limit to the number of children they can care for.
  • Pre-schools and kindergartens are the oldest type of childcare in Australia. Traditionally they've provided only shortened day care (such as school hours, or 9.00am to 3.00pm) which isn't ideal for many working parents.
  • Occasional care is provided in purpose-built centres, neighbourhood houses or parent co-operatives. There are generally restrictions on the number of hours occasional care can be used by any child each week.

At-home care options:

  • In-Home Care service is funded by the Australian Government for families who can't access other childcare options and who meet certain criteria, such as having three or more children under school age, having a child or parent with a disability, having a parent who works non-standard hours, or living in rural or remote areas.
  • A nanny suits families who like the stability and convenience of having a professional carer come to their home. It can be more expensive than other options but for parents of multiple children it might work out the same as formal care. Another way to reduce costs is to share a nanny with other families. If your nanny is a registered carer, you may be eligible for the government's Child Care Benefit. Whether you decide to find a nanny yourself or go through an agency, you'll find our guide to finding a nanny essential reading.

Informal child care

Informal childcare is when you have a relative or friend look after your children, either in their home or yours. Grandparents are the largest providers of informal care. Although this arrangement can be quite flexible and cheap, there is a downside to consider. Grandparents may enjoy this caring role, but it has the potential to affect their income, health, or free time - particularly if they provide large amounts of care. Parents may feel guilty and worry about the wellbeing of the grandparent or how long they'll be able to continue.

What else should I know about finding quality childcare?

How to find a childcare service

To find a formal childcare service near you (or your workplace):

  • contact the local council,
  • check with your baby health care clinic or state department of health or community services,
  • use the search facility on the website of the Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA),
  • call the Child Care Access Hotline on 1800 670 305 for a complete listing of all Child Care Benefit-approved services in your area and their vacancies, and
  • use the Child Care Search facility on www.mychild.gov.au (can show centres near you with vacancies).

Beware the pitfalls

Many parents who responded to a CHOICE survey said looking for childcare was a nightmare of long waiting lists and juggling schedules to find a place. Disturbingly, some parents said they'd felt compelled to take whatever they could get, and some said the cost of childcare cancelled out the economic value of returning to work altogether.

Problems our survey respondents had once they got a place for their child or children included:

  • high cost,
  • high staff turnover,
  • too few staff, with too many children being looked after at once,
  • having to fundraise for the centre,
  • parking,
  • unsuitable opening and closing times,
  • unsuitability of staff, and
  • old or inadequate premises.

It's important to also note that some respondents said they'd had little trouble finding affordable, quality childcare in a community-based/not-for-profit centre, commercial long-day care centre or through family day care. Others said they'd struggled to find care, but were happy with it once they found it.

Childcare costs

High childcare costs are a concern for many parents, but some government benefits can ease the pain.

  • Child Care Benefit (CCB) – your income level and care type determines how much you can receive. 
  • Child Care Rebate (CCR) – if you're using approved childcare for work, training or study-related reasons, you can receive up to 50 percent of your out-of-pocket childcare costs, up to $7500 (indexed) for each child each year. Not means-tested. 
  • Grandparents – if you're an eligible grandparent who has primary care of your grandchildren and receive an income support payment, such as a government pension, you may receive the Grandparent Child Care Benefit

Waiting lists

You may need to put your child's name down at one or more centres as early as possible – perhaps even before they're born – and from then on regularly check with the centres to see if a vacancy has come up. Some centres charge a non-refundable fee just to register on their waiting list.

Before and after-school care and holiday care

Parents of school-age children my need care for their kids outside of school hours and during the holidays. Services generally operate in primary schools, community centres or halls. Check with your school if they offer Out of School Hours Care (sometimes referred to as OOSH or OOSHC) onsite, or to find out where the nearest centre is.

Babysitting

If you need someone to look after your kids on an ad-hoc basis, look for a babysitter who is experienced, responsible, and preferably has a First Aid Certificate. Seek word-of-mouth recommendations from families and friends, or go through an agency – they'll charge you a fee, but they'll also do reference and background checks. You can also use one of the following online directories: babysittersearch.com.au, careforkids.com.au or dialanangel.com.

Tips for employing a babysitter:

  • Interview them in advance and arrange for them to spend some time with you and your children to check that they're all comfortable together.
  • Provide the babysitter with information about your children's routines and any medical conditions they may have, as well as rules about TV, bedtime and computer use.
  • Make sure they know where to find things such as nappies or medicines, and leave them your mobile number plus contacts for other family members (in case they can't get hold of you), and other emergency numbers.

Children with disabilities

Children who have a disability may have access to supplementary services such as special programs, training and/or facilities. Discuss your child's needs and their eligibility for support or funding with your childcare service.

Complaints

If you have a problem with a childcare service, it's usually best to first raise the concern directly with the centre. If you think a childcare centre is in breach of regulatory requirements (for example, it's short-staffed, or the building is unsafe), you can complain to the state or territory body that licenses the centre. For a list of contacts for state and territory licensing authorities, visit the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) website. You can also lodge a formal complaint with ACECQA if it comes to that.

Childcare checklist

If you have a childcare service in mind, we recommend you visit it at least a couple of times and spend time observing how the staff interact with the children, and how the centre (or home if it's family day care) is run.

  1. Do the children seem happy and engaged in activities, or do they look bored?
  2. Does the centre or home look like a happy place to be?
  3. Are you and your child welcome?
  4. Are staff engaged with the children or sitting around chatting to each other?
  5. Do they appear to know the children well?
  6. Are there any quiet, private areas where children can look at books or play by themselves if they want to?
  7. Does each child have a cot or bed and/or a place such as a locker where personal belongings can be kept during the day?
  8. Is the children's own work displayed around the walls at their eye level?
  9. Do all of the children have enough space? It's critical to ensure that children have enough indoor and outdoor space, because overcrowding and confined spaces can damage a child's development.
  10. Ask questions about how your child will be taken care of and how their needs will be met. You should be welcome to drop in and see your child any time. Experts recommend you visit unannounced now and again.
  11. Ask about staff turnover and qualifications, what the child-to-staff ratio is for your child's age group, and how many children are in each room or group. Are any of the staff's qualifications related to early childhood?
  12. If the centre provides food, ask to see the menu, and check how often it's changed, whether it can cater for special dietary requests, whether quantities are adequate, and if enough fresh fruit and vegetables are being served.
  13. Check that the equipment and play spaces are safe. Are measures in place to keep children away from stairs, fireplaces or heaters, is the yard well fenced so children can't find their way out, and is the carer able to see all of the children at all times?
  14. Check the rating given by the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority, which sets quality standards and accredits services that meet the standards. Don't be afraid to ask questions about their results.

For more information

The following organisations and websites have further info on childcare vacancies, childcare services in your area, quality issues, types of childcare and government assistance with childcare costs.

MyChild

Freecall: 1800 670 305 (Monday to Friday, 8.00am to 6.00pm EST)

Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA)

Phone: 1300 422 327 (Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm EST)

Family Day Care Australia

Freecall: 1800 621 218 (Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm EST)

Australian Community Children's Services

Phone: (03) 9486 3455

National In-Home Childcare Association

Phone: (02) 6026 3899

Department of Human Services (Families section)

Phone: 131 272