IT'S known as the second mortgage and for those who can't afford it, the cost of childcare is the reason one parent can't return to work. Childcare costs for a baby can be as high as €1,100 a month and the average cost of sending two young children to childcare full-time is about €16,500 a year, according to Indecon research published last month.
So if you're struggling with hefty childcare bills, is there anything you can do to ease the blow to your pocket?
Ask if the creche offers a discount. Some offer corporate discounts if you're working in a company nearby, others offer sibling discounts if you're sending two or more children there. These discounts are usually around 10 per cent.
Don't accept the first fee that a creche, childminder or nanny quotes you – see if you can negotiate the fee down.
If you work part-time or can get a grandparent or relative to look after your children for a day or two a week, you could chop your childcare fees by as much as 40 per cent. Most creches offer part-time places.
"Creches are more flexible today because of austerity and because more childcare places are available," said Irene Gunning, chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents creches.
"A few years ago, you could only really have your child in creche full-time – even if you only needed to use the creche for three or four days a week. Nowadays, if you only want a place for three or four days, you're most likely to get it."
You could chop your childcare fees by a fifth or more by shopping around. For example, some of the larger creche chains in Dublin charge €1,100 a month for a full-time baby place – but you could find a small local creche which charges about €900 a month.
Community creches can work out cheaper than private ones. The average cost of a full-time baby place in a community creche is about €699 a month, while the average cost of a private creche is about €780, according to Early Childhood Ireland.
Although a childminder could work out cheaper than a creche, this isn't always the case. Childminders could charge as much as €927 a month to look after your child full-time, according to a recent survey by Childminding Ireland, which represents childminders.
Childminding fees vary greatly, depending on where you live. The average full-time fee varied from a low of €503 a month in Tipperary to €927 a month in Kildare, according to the survey. The average national full-time fee was €659. If you're paying by the hour, the average hourly rate for part-time care is between €5.20 and €5.40, according to Childminding Ireland. However, fees can be as high as €10 an hour.
If the childminding route works out cheaper for you or you have no creches in your area, it's important to know exactly where you stand when it comes to sickness and holidays. Do you need to cover the cost of your childminder's sick or holiday leave, for example? Avoid doing so if you can.
Similarly, do you need to pay your childminder when your child is on holiday or sick at home? There is little leeway on these issues with creches – you have to pay a set fee each month, even if your child is off sick regularly or on holidays.
Remember, one of the advantages of a creche is that another staff member can usually stand in for a carer who is sick. If your childminder is sick, you will usually have to arrange for someone else to look after your child that day.
"If considering hiring a childminder, ask to see proof of insurance and enquire about training and garda vetting," said Bernie Gallagher, manager of Childminding Ireland. "Ask for at least two references that are not character references and are not from family or friends.
"If the childminder minds more than four pre-school children – who are not from the same family – at any one time, he or she must notify the Health Service Executive."
Au pairs could work out cheaper than childminders or creches. However, the quality of childcare may not be as good because au pairs are not regulated and they may not have any childcare training. Au pairs are usually given board and paid pocket money each week in return for helping out with the minding of children and light housework.
USE THE ECCE SCHEME
All children are entitled to a year's free pre-school under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme. To be eligible for the ECCE scheme, your child must usually be aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months on September 1 of the year they will be starting school.
If your child is going to a creche full-time, don't expect your childcare fees to disappear once the ECCE scheme kicks in – they may only be reduced by about a fifth. You can get three free hours a day over 38 weeks under ECCE if your child is in full-time care.
So if your child attends a creche for longer than three hours a day and for the entire calendar year, you will be charged for the extra time and weeks that are not covered by ECCE.
If you're really at the pin of your collar, check if there's a community creche near you that is taking part in the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) scheme. You may be able to get cheap childcare through this scheme if you're in a low-paid job, are a parent who is still in school, or are a low-income family.
As this scheme could knock up to €95 a week off the cost of childcare, it could be worth almost €5,000 a year if you qualify for it.
The After-school Childcare Scheme could also help you. This scheme offers cheap childcare to parents who have been out of work for a long time who either return to work or increase the number of hours they work each week.