Office Mum Andrea Mara on choosing the right childcare to suit your needs
From the tours and talks to the endless questions about baby-room ratios, routines and rates; eight years ago, my husband and I were spending a considerable amount of time being shown around local crèches. It was like house-hunting all over again, but much scarier.
Would this place be good enough for our child? Would she learn, and thrive? Would she be well-cared for? Would she be safe and secure? Or he. We didn’t know yet that she was a girl, because she wasn’t born. Crèche places were at such a premium that we had to book ours while I was still pregnant.
Today, one recession later, the pressure is off. Crèche places are in greater supply and maternity leave is also longer. But the decision-making process is as daunting as ever. What kind of childcare is best for your child?
A stay-at-home parent, a grandparent or other relative? A childminder in her own home, or a childminder in yours? A lie-out or live-in au pair? A local crèche or one near work?
There’s no single best option – what’s great for one family might not suit another. The decision depends on a number of factors:
One child might thrive in a busy crèche with a well-planned curriculum, while another might benefit from the one-to-one attention that comes from having a childminder in the home. So a decision that seems impossible when your baby is new (or not yet born), becomes much easier to make when she’s eight or nine months old.
Can you picture your child enjoying the activities that usually make up part of the day in a crèche – messy play, water play, painting, dancing, garden-time, and socialising with other children? Or would she be more relaxed in her own home, with the individual attention of a nanny or an au pair?
Or maybe something in between – a childminder outside the home, who may also look after a small number of other children?
In a perfect world, this is the only thing any of us would take into account – where will my child be happiest. However, for most of us, choosing childcare comes down to a number of other criteria – logistics, availability and of course, cost.
From here on in, the commute is no longer just about getting to work – you will more than likely have to bring your child to childcare too. So if you’re choosing a crèche, you might want one that’s near your house – or indeed, one that’s near work.
When we finally settled on a crèche eight years ago, we chose one that was a five minute walk from my city-centre workplace. It meant that I could visit my daughter at lunch-time and I didn’t have to panic if I was stuck late in work – I could leave the office at 6.10pm and still make it before crèche closed at 6.15pm. The downside was that my daughter did a lot of commuting too.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that jobs can change or businesses can move to new locations. So the crèche that was ideal at the beginning could become an impossible commute in the future, and changing crèche can be a big (but definitely not insurmountable) upheaval.
A good option logistically is having your child minded in your own home – by a stay-at-home partner, a nanny, an au pair or a grandparent.
If you have a live-in au pair, the costs are relatively low. But you need to be prepared for having someone living in your house – it works well if you have the space, or if the au pair has a good network of friends and a social life. It may work less well if she’s sitting between you and your partner on the couch every night, holding the remote control.
Bear in mind also, au pairs are usually young students who are here to learn English – their experience minding children may be limited. On the other hand, a nanny is someone who has experience and possibly childcare qualifications – she doesn’t live in your house, but this is a more expensive option.
For many, a first choice option (when it’s available) is grandparents. There’s something very reassuring about having children cared for by close relatives. But before going down this route, think about whether or not you’d be comfortable raising any potential issues – if your mother-in-law is feeding your child chocolate or letting her watch a lot of TV, will you able to bring this up?
Mum of two Deirdre is finding this challenging. “My mother-in-law is amazing, but she’s constantly buying treats for the kids while I’m at work. I’m trying to get my husband to say something, but he doesn’t want to upset her,” she says.
There’s also the concern that grandparents become less physically able as they get older. “My mam used to mind ours when they were smaller,” says Jane, who works in HR. “But this year we got a childminder – I just don’t think my mam was up to it anymore.”
For those who are going down the formal childcare route, availability can depend on where you live. It also depends on whether or not you’re aware of what’s available – when we were looking in 2007, I searched online for lists of crèches, but never considered asking around about childminders in my area. Childminding.ie is a great resource, with a directory of registered childminders, listed by county.
Unfortunately in Ireland, where we have the highest childcare costs in Europe, this is a significant factor for most parents. It would be great if all other criteria could be considered first, but it’s usually not the case.
A nanny in the home (usually referred to as a childminder, but the correct term is nanny) is an expensive option, because you are the employer – you need to pay your nanny a full salary (be that an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly rate – you negotiate this on hiring.) As an employer, you must register with Revenue, file returns, and pay PAYE, PRSI and USC deducted. You must also pay employer PRSI. These amounts may be relatively small, depending on what you are paying. This is a useful guide on tax when employing a nanny.
Crèche can be expensive if you have more than one child. You pay per child (although there’s often a sibling discount.) Many parents find that paying for one child is manageable, but when a second or third child comes along, it becomes a challenge.
A childminder who minds your child in her home rather than in yours can be a relatively cost-effective option – rates are usually agreed on a case by case basis, depending on hours of work and number of children. In this scenario, you are not the employer – you are paying for a service, so there is no need to register with Revenue.
When comparing crèche to nanny costs, it’s also worth bearing in mind that there are hidden costs with the latter. “We looked at having three in crèche compared to getting a childminder [to our home]” says Edel, who is an accountant. “It was about the same, and because we needed someone to do the school-run, we went with a childminder. But I realised then that when you add in the cost of food, heating and petrol, it’s actually a good bit more expensive than crèche would have been. It’s also messier because they’re in the house all day!”
And finally, word of mouth
If there’s a great crèche that everyone uses in your local area, chances are, you might too. Or if there’s a childminder who has been working for your friend and she’s now available, she might be the perfect fit for your children. There’s a huge amount to be said for word of mouth when it comes to childcare – if people you know and trust are truly happy with a particular provider, this might be worth any necessary cost or logistics trade-off. When it comes to childcare, a safe, happy environment for children, and peace of mind for parents is paramount.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working in financial services, or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.