Making the decision to look for some form of childcare for your baby or child is often hard. It may be made harder if you would like to look after your child yourself, but for some reason cannot do so.
It is therefore important to focus on finding the right form of childcare, and the right person or organisation to provide it.
This page is designed to help you through some of the thinking and decisions.
For more about the types of childcare available, please see our page on Types of Childcare.
Do Your Research
Find out what type of childcare is available in your area.
In the UK, local councils will maintain a list of providers, particularly those with spaces. This can save time phoning round providers without spaces.
Phone calls may also eliminate some providers, for example, if they cannot offer the care or the days that you want.
Visiting Childcare Providers
Once you have whittled down your shortlist to about four or five providers, you can arrange some visits.
You should always visit potential childcare providers, and see where your child will be spending their time. If possible take the child with you and see how you think they will fit in.
Try to spend a bit of time there, watching how the carer(s) interact with other children.
Seeing ‘warts and all’
Even better than arranging a visit, ask if you can drop in unannounced (if necessary, say that your schedule is a bit fluid and it is hard to make firm commitments).
Suggest a morning or afternoon that you would like to visit but avoid fixing a time. This will enable you to see the provider ‘warts and all’.
It is also helpful to take someone else with you, for example, a family member or a friend. They may see things that you have missed.
While you are there, look out for:
- Relaxed and happy children who are purposefully busy, across all the age groups for whom the provider caters;
- Carers who respond to children individually and seem engaged with the children. With younger children, you would expect to see the carers down on the floor with the children, and probably cuddling at least one;
- Safe, clean premises where you will be happy to leave your child, including an outdoor play area which is being used when you visit;
- An atmosphere which you think will suit your child, whether noisy and cheerful, or quieter and more peaceful.
Also look at how you and your child are welcomed and treated. Do they seem pleased to see you, and keen to get to know you both?
Questions to Ask Childcare Providers
There are a number of questions that you should ask any potential childcare provider. These include both practical questions and questions about how they will look after your child:
- Have you got space for my child on the days that I want?
- How flexible is your provision? Will I be able to change days if necessary?
- What are your charges? Do I pay in advance or in arrears? Do I have to pay for unused sessions?
- How will my child spend the day or their time here? What activities do you do routinely? How much planning do you do? Can you give me an idea of a typical day?
- Do you follow your routine or the child’s? How flexible are you about nap times and food times?
- At mealtimes, how flexible are you about what the children will eat? Are the children allowed to help themselves to drinks and snacks?
- Will you provide me with feedback and, if so, how?
- Will my child have a keyworker? How will you decide who that is?
- What is the ratio of staff to children? What qualifications do you and the staff have?
- How do you manage poor behaviour?
- Do you provide meals and snacks or do I have to provide them?
- Are the same children likely to be here whenever my child attends? This will help them to build up a friendship group, although it is less important with children under the age of about two.
- What arrangements do you make for settling in? Most places will offer at least two or three settling-in sessions that will last an hour or so, to give your child a chance to become familiar with the place before starting ‘properly’.
- For nurseries, what sort of staff turnover do you have? Do you keep the same carers in the same rooms all the time, or do they move around?
You should also ask any questions that are really vital for you, for example around flexibility of drop-off and pick-up times.
The answers to these questions will help to give you a picture of the setting, and how well it is likely to suit your child, and to fit in with your routine and systems.
Whether or not the setting feels right is the most important aspect.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it: only you know whether it feels right for your child. And if it stops feeling right, trust your instinct and look elsewhere. Children change, and so do settings, for example, as staff come and go.
Other Things to Remember
Always take up references for any childcare setting or provider.
Ask to speak to at least two other parents whose children currently attend. Ask them for their views generally, but also ask if they have had any problems, and how the problems were managed. Bear in mind, though, that the provider is likely to give you names of people they are confident will recommend them.
In the UK, it is also worth checking the latest Ofsted report for the setting.
You may need to pay a deposit to retain a place until you need it.
Always Have a Back-up Plan
There will be times when your child is ill or, if they go to a childminder, then either the childminder or their children are sick. Under these circumstances, you will need a back-up plan.
That plan might be ‘I will take time off or work from home’, but be aware that you may need your back-up plan a lot. Something more reliable may be necessary, even if it is only reciprocal favours with a friend.
Remember that you can always combine childcare options.
For example, you might want your child to have the experience of being in a busy nursery setting one day per week, but think that they would be better off with a nanny or childminder for two or three other days each week. This not only gives you more flexibility, but also means that you have some kind of back-up plan should one carer be sick.