We've gathered together Mumsnetters' tips on nurseries, childminders and nannies - and how to choose between them - as well as advice on childcare for older children and childcare by a family member
Many of us embark on motherhood with a vague plan along the lines of: stop work for three or six or nine or 12 months, then find a nursery/childminder/nanny/granny to look after our baby while we will return to our old job full of renewed vigour and vim.
But as the end of maternity leave approaches, the reality of handing over your baby into someone else's care can be anxiety-inducing - not to mention expensive. And however much you want or need to work, it's hard to escape those qualms that what you're doing is not best for your baby.
But, rest assured, you will manage. Look around your commuter train or bus and reflect that each of your fellow-passengers has been conveyed from the precarious condition of infancy to fully-fledged, newspaper-reading adulthood by parents who worked or didn't work or worked some of the time and used all manner of childcare. Now all that's left to do is decide which option is best for you.
Childcare: the basic principles
Over the years, Mumsnetters have come up with a set of guiding rules when it comes to choosing childcare.
- The quality of the care you choose is more important than the form it takes - a good childminder, a good nursery, a good nanny, a competent grandparent will all do a fine job.
- You must do what suits your family. There is no one solution which is best for everyone.
- Childcare belongs to both parents and you must divide it in a way that suits you all.
- There was no golden age when all children were cared for exclusively by their mothers who were able to stimulate them non-stop while baking scones.
PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, suggests considering the following when choosing childcare ready for your return to work.
1. What are my child's needs?
You know your child better than anyone. Think carefully about what type of childcare is likely to suit them. Would they feel more secure in a small, home-based setting with a childminder? Or are they ready for a larger, busier nursery?
2. How many hours of childcare do I need?
You may work traditional full-time hours and need childcare from 8am-6pm. Or you may work part-time and be in need of half-days or care for part of the week. And if you work shifts then you might find you need 'out-of-hours' childcare.
There will be different childcare options in your local community that can meet these needs; you just need a clear idea of what pattern of care you think you'll need to make finding them easier. Don't forget that all employees are able to request flexible working and their employer must deal with the request in a reasonable manner - so, do consider whether asking for different working hours might help you manage.
3. Can you access free early education in your area?
The government gives local authorities funding to provide a part-time early education place for all three- and four-year-olds, and for two-year-olds from low-income families. Your child will be able to take up their place from the term after their third birthday. So, for example, if your child turns three in October, they would be entitled to take up their funded place from the beginning of the spring term (January). Early education can be delivered in any good or outstanding registered childcare setting, but it's always best to check that your provider can offer this.
Many nurseries and childminders are able to provide the free early education entitlement as part of ongoing care, meaning that the cost for those sessions is provided by the local authority, reducing your bill.
4. What learning and play opportunities do I want my child to have?
Using more than one provider may give your child opportunities to experience play and early learning in different settings.
Once you've considered these sort of questions, you should have a clearer idea of the type of childcare that's likely to best support you and your child. Don't forget that it's really important to think about the quality of the care and learning the childcare setting provides, too.