Choosing Childcare

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Knowing where to start when looking for childcare can often feel like an uphill struggle, adding to the stress and guilt many parents feel about returning to work. With over 20 years’ experience working in Early Years, (including managing nurseries, advising childminders and as a private nanny) and now a mother myself, I draw on my professional knowledge and personal experience to help you make decisions about childcare.

This article gives a brief overview of the main types of childcare, where to find out about them, issues to consider when choosing between them, as well as how to pay for childcare.

However, it is not possible to cover in a brief article all of the nuances of choosing childcare. If you would like more information and guidance, please take a look at the workshop ‘Choosing Childcare with Confidence’

The first thing I would say to any parent is to start thinking about childcare even before your child arrives. Spaces, particularly for babies, are often in great demand and waiting lists at good settings can often be long. When I worked as a nursery manager, it wasn’t unusual to have unborn babies on my waiting list. If you leave searching for childcare until the point you are returning to work/need it, you may have trouble finding anywhere with space or be left with only less than ideal options.

Options for childcare

Depending on the age of your child and what you want from your childcare, you have five main options (excluding family); day nurseries, childminder, pre-school, nanny, or au-pair. Below is an overview of what each one offers. There is no right or wrong answer to what you chose; it’s about finding childcare that is right for your child and family.

Day Nurseries

  • Regulated by Ofsted

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare

  • Care for children aged 3 months to 5 years

  • Care for children in different age groups, usually in different rooms

  • Can be small (around 30 children) to large (100+ children)

  • Are open 8 or 8.30am – 5.30 or 6pm, (some have extended hours covering 7am – 7pm)

  • Staff teams work in shifts

  • Usually operate Monday to Friday

  • Usually offer ‘morning’, ‘afternoon’ or ‘full day’ sessions

  • Often have a minimum number of sessions/days that children need to attend

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Normally accept 2,3 and 4-year-old funding


  • Care for children in their (the childminder’s) home

  • Regulated by Ofsted (or a childminder agency)

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare – i.e. the same as a nursery or pre-school

  • Care for children from 3 months to 5 years and beyond

  • Can care for up to 6 children of mixed ages, but often have less

  • Have a wide range of opening hours, including some who operate weekends, evenings and overnight

  • Usually charge by the hour, rather than fixed sessions

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Often accept 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

Pre-school or Play group

  • Regulated by Ofsted

  • Have to follow Early Years Foundation Stage to support children's care, learning and welfare

  • Care for children 2 or 2.5 years to 5 years

  • Usually somewhere between 15 and 30 children attending at any one time

  • Open term-time only, from around 9am to 3pm (i.e. ‘school hours’)

  • Morning and afternoon sessions – some have ‘lunch clubs’ for an extra charge

  • Often have a minimum number of sessions/days children need to attend

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

  • Usually mainly funded through 2,3 and 4-year-old funding

  • Often run by a voluntary committee, so you are likely to be asked to help in some way.

Nanny/Mother’s Help

  • Cares for your child in your own home

  • Doesn’t have to be Ofsted registered, although can be (but only very light touch)

  • May be qualified, but may not be

  • May have First Aid training, may not

  • Not obliged to formally support your child’s learning but most do

  • Will often do light household chores related to the children

  • You are their employer, so you are responsible for their tax, National Insurance, pension and holiday pay

  • Can sometimes be cheaper than a nursery if you have two or more children

  • Will work between 40 and 60 hours a week (full time)

  • Can be live in or live out, may also do included babysitting

  • Some nannies will do overnight, weekends or follow shift patterns

  • You can use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay (if the nanny is Ofsted registered)

  • Can’t use 2,3 and 4-year-old funding


  • Lives with host family in return for childcare, light housework and some ‘pocket money’

  • No recommended for children under three, ideally only for school age children

  • Not qualified

  • Usually only minimal childcare experience and limited English

  • Must also attend a language course

  • Can only work up to 30 hours per week (this includes any babysitting)

  • Not registered by Ofsted

  • Can’t use your tax-free childcare allowance to pay

How to choose childcare

Deciding which type of childcare and then which individual setting or person will work for you and your child is a very personal choice. It can be helpful to talk to other families about what childcare they are using. Ask about what works for them and what doesn’t. While your needs might be different it will start to help you identify areas that are important for you.

When choosing childcare it’s important to;

  • Work out what you and your child need/want from childcare. For example:

  • Young children thrive on physical interaction and cuddles, so consistent care from a qualified nanny or a childminder might meet their needs best.

  • If your child is very active then a setting with more space and good outside play may be more appropriate

  • A quite child may do better in a smaller setting

  • Visit a number of settings to get a feel for what different options offer

  • Try not to judge by just the look – a new building doesn’t guarantee great quality care

  • Think about location – for example do you want childcare close to home or close to work.

  • Look at Ofsted inspection reports

  • Ask lots of questions about how the childcare setting is run to determine if it is right for you and your child

  • Check how much the fees are (and how often they are reviewed) and whether the hours meet your needs.

Where to find information on local childcare options

  • All Local Authorities hold a list of Ofsted registered childcare settings. Many Local Authorities have searchable online data bases.

  • list many day nurseries and pre-schools, including those in your area

  • can be a place to start looking for a childminder or nanny, but beware, the site doesn’t vet anyone, so be sure to follow up on qualifications and references

  • has a data base of childminders who are registered with PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years

  • Register with local Nanny agencies but they will charge a fee and it is possible to find and employ a nanny without the use of one.

Paying for childcare

There are a number of government initiatives to help you pay for your childcare

  • Tax free childcare for working families

  • 15 hours funding for some 2-year-olds

  • Universal 15 hours funding for all 3 and 4-year olds

  • 30 hours childcare funding for 3 and 4-year-olds of working families

  • Families claiming Universal Credit – may be able to claim up to 85% of childcare costs

More information on paying for childcare can be found here

I hope this brief overview has helped you gain some understanding of the childcare options out there. Don’t forget to take a look at our workshop ‘Choosing Childcare with Confidence’ if you would like more support and information. Topics covered:

  • I go into greater detail about each type of childcare, so you can really understand the pros and cons of each option.

  • Provide more guidance for when visiting or interviewing possible childcare option to help you find the best fit.

  • How to gage your child's view on a setting (even if they are only a baby)

  • Cover in greater detail how to access government support for paying for childcare.

  • Explain what the regulator, Ofsted, does and doesn’t cover

  • Provide further guidance of finding possible childcare

Please take a look here to see when the next 'Choosing Childcare with Confidence' session is running.

In the mean time, why not follow us on our newly created Parents’ Facebook page to keep up to date with the very latest news and ideas for you and your child.

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