Types of Childcare
When you are looking for childcare, the first step is to find out what is available in your area. There are two main types of formal out-of-home childcare: day nurseries and childminders.
If you think that your child would be better cared for at home, in a familiar environment, you may be better off with a nanny. You might also be lucky enough to be able to opt for family care, for example from grandparents or other family members.
This page provides a brief explanation about each type of provision including the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Day nurseries, or crèches, are probably the most formal childcare setting.
They will usually have a manager, and quite a few staff. Many are organised into ‘rooms’ by children’s age, for example, having a baby room, a toddler room, a room for 2–3 year olds, and a ‘preschool’ room. In the UK the staff ratios are fixed by law, and most will not provide more staff than legally required. The staff may also move around from time to time, so your child may not always be cared for by the same people.
Day nurseries may be independent businesses, or they may be provided at your workplace, as a crèche. The advantage of a workplace crèche is that you can work longer hours because your travel time to the nursery is negligible. You can also pop in to see your child at lunch times or if you have a break. The cost may be subsidised by your employer.
Most nurseries are open long hours, and you will pay by the day, rather than by the hour, so you can leave your child there all day, often from 8am until 6pm. They generally provide all meals and snacks. This comes at a price, however: nurseries are often one of the more expensive childcare settings.
The big advantage of nurseries is that staff can be off sick without you having to miss a session. It is up to the nursery to manage staffing, so you can guarantee that there will be enough staff present. On the other hand, you will almost certainly have to pay for the place, even if you miss sessions for holidays.
Childminders look after children in their homes. They are likely to be looking after several children, of varying ages at any one time, including quite possibly their own. Your child will therefore be exposed to children of varying ages, as if in a family.
In the UK, childminders can look after up to six children under eight, with no more than three under five, although this rule can sometimes be varied to accommodate siblings.
The advantage of a childminder is that the atmosphere is a ‘family’ one. Children will be in a more familiar environment, and the childminder may be able to be more flexible than a nursery about meals or nap times. However, if the childminder is looking after older children, they may need to do a school run, which could limit flexibility. There is also more potential for missing sessions: the childminder may be unable to provide care because one of their children is ill, as well as if your child is sick.
Childminders are self-employed, so you do not have to worry about employment law. They also set their own fees and terms and conditions, but are likely to be able to offer some flexibility in terms of what you pay for, and the arrangements that you come to about pick-up times. They can also take holidays whenever they like, which may not be convenient for you.
Many childminders have childcare qualifications; they often worked as nannies or in a nursery before having their own children.
Nannies are paid to look after your child, in your home. They are likely to have good childcare qualifications and a long-term interest in working with children.
A nanny may or may not live in. You are, however, their formal employer with all the responsibilities that entails, including (in the UK) paying National Insurance and providing paid holiday and a workplace pension.
If your nanny is living in, they will need their own bedroom and preferably bathroom.
Although expensive, having a nanny can be a reasonably economical option if you have more than one child. It is also ideal if you work irregular hours, and cannot guarantee being home in time for a nursery pick-up, as it is the most flexible arrangement. A nanny will also look after your child when he or she is sick, although you will still need a back-up for when the nanny is sick.
You may find that you can do a nanny-share, where two families share a nanny on a part-time basis, perhaps having two days each, or where the nanny looks after children from both families at the same time, alternating between the two houses. This makes it a more economical option.
Au pairs are not nannies.
An au pair is a young foreign person, either male or female, to whom you provide accommodation in return for some light childcare and/or household tasks. They should be given enough time off to attend English classes locally. They are NOT qualified nannies, and should not usually or routinely be asked to look after very young children.
Nannies are less regulated than other forms of childcare, so you need to be confident that she or he is actually doing what you want, and not drinking coffee and looking at Facebook all day!
Family care is care provided by grandparents or other family members.
You may be paying them or not, but they are not considered to be childminders, and do not need to be registered. This type of care works very well because the child is being cared for by someone familiar and whose values are likely to be very similar to yours.
On the downside, you may need to negotiate terms quite carefully, as you don’t want to take anyone for granted, or be left high and dry by holidays.
Finally, informal care is from friends.
If you pay your friend, they are formally considered to be a childminder, and in some countries, including the UK, will need to be registered. Reciprocal childcare, however, where you look after your friend’s child while she works, and vice versa, does not come under the heading of paid childcare, and does not need to be registered in the UK, at least.
For more about making a choice between different types of childcare, see our page Choosing Childcare.