The childcare question: Picking the kind that best suits your family’s needs
Picking childcare that suits you and your family’s needs can be a daunting task. Andrea Mara speaks to five mothers about their choice
What kind of childcare should you choose? It's the question faced by thousands of couples every year in Ireland, and it can be a daunting decision. Especially during the sleep-deprived early days, when preparing to go back to work seems a distant, fuzzy prospect.
And of course, like most parenting questions, there's no single correct answer. What's right for the city-dwelling one-child couple may be very different to what works for a family of four living in the countryside. So I asked five mothers to talk to me about their childcare solutions - why they chose them, what the benefits are, and if there are any pitfalls to consider.
Around 20pc of Irish families choose crèche, including Rebekah, a Dublin mother of two, who wanted childcare that's always available. "A crèche is never 'sick' or on holidays," she explains.
She picked her particular crèche because of its location and its size. "It's small and that was important to me," says Rebekah. "Other children seemed very happy when we visited and we were able to call in unannounced. There are good opening hours so we could drop Charlie in on the way to work and collect him on the way home."
And are there any downsides to consider? "Cost!" says Rebekah. "Crèche is really expensive. Also your child will pick up every bug going. But I feel this is due to happen at some stage, so you might as well get it out of the way now."
If reliability and social interaction are priorities, as well as home-cooked meals provided on site, crèche could be your best bet.
A childminder is someone who looks after your child in their home, not yours. Mother-of-one Ciara went for this option when she recently returned to work.
"Ratio of care was one factor," says Ciara about her decision. "We wanted Kate to be around other children - but not too many."
Consistency of care mattered too. "We were looking for a home away from home. We liked the idea that one person would be looking after Kate, and that she would get to know her likes or dislikes," says Ciara. "The fact that the childminder could work around Kate's routine was very comforting. We didn't want her to have to slot into a routine prescribed for her."
According to Ciara, the biggest challenge with using a childminder is finding the right one. "Referrals from friends or family would be the preference, but in our case no one was able to recommend someone to us. I sourced lists of local childminders online but I found that most of them were unavailable. There is certainly a lack of availability of experienced, qualified childminders."
When meeting a prospective childminder, Ciara advises asking if she is FETAC Level 5 qualified, Garda vetted, trained in first aid, and registered with Childminding Ireland.
Although also commonly referred to as a childminder, the person who minds your child in your home is officially a nanny. It can be costly, but it has huge advantages, as Dublin mum-of-two Johanna discovered.
"We initially started our son in crèche," says Johanna, "But very soon after, he got sick, and for the next few weeks he was out of crèche more than he was in. We decided to pull him out and to get a childminder."
As well as one-to-one attention for her children, and no drop-offs or pick-ups before and after work, Johanna finds that there's a huge level of trust in place. "You know that your children are 100pc safe and well in their own home, in the care of someone who loves them nearly as much as you do."
It's an expensive option though, as Johanna explains. "Your childminder is your employee and is entitled to all the benefits that any worker is entitled to, like 20 days annual leave a year. PAYE, PRSI, and USC need to be accounted for, and as an employer you also pay employer's PRSI on top of the annual salary."
But from Johanna's perspective, it's worth it, as her two boys have their nanny's full attention, and she has peace of mind.
The primary consideration when hiring an au pair is that she lives in your house, and is available for a set number of hours only. But it's a very inexpensive option, and works well for families outside urban areas. Keara, a mum of two from Wicklow, has had very good experiences with au pairs.
"Crèche was not an option as there are none around us," she says. "We decided to try an au pair based on the fact that it's not expensive. The person is living with you, so there's no drop off in the morning - no panic getting out the door with a sleepy child."
Having someone live in your house isn't for everyone. "You need to be open to accepting someone into your home; they are not an employee who should stay out of your way," says Keara. "They need to be incorporated into the family. If you are a private person or very particular about your house, then I would think it's probably not a good idea - you need to be able to relax."
The most common childcare providers in Ireland today are extended family, primarily grandparents. For children, being cared for by family is a wonderful experience, but this only works well if grandparents are willing and physically able.
Laura, a Dublin mum of three, says she's very lucky that her mother-in-law has always been part of her childcare arrangements.
"It is a great option, but only if the grandparents want to do it and it's not purely for financial reasons. We were very fortunate in that my mother-in-law wanted to have some role in the childcare. I think the children find comfort in having a family member around but I'm very aware that not everyone has this option."
As with all arrangements, there are some pitfalls. "Grandparents have lives to lead and it's a big commitment to take on childcare, so don't be offended if they decline," warns Laura. "Although they all love their grandchildren, it may be a different story when they've had them for eight to 10 hours a day. The other issue is availability. Given it's usually voluntary, there's a chance that they'll want more time off than a paid childminder, so you might find yourself looking for cover on those days."
And you may have to bite your tongue on minor child-rearing practices, says Laura. "They are doing you a favour, so it's hard to dictate how they do things."
Finally, remember that situations change - while crèche may be great when you have one child, it can become prohibitively expensive if you have three. Likewise, a nanny might be too costly with a first child, but could make perfect sense with a bigger family. Starting school adds complications and often necessitates reassessing childcare. And many parents use a mix of different options throughout the childcare years.
While there's no one perfect solution, and the cost is a challenge for most; once you do your research, there's certainly a good option out there for every family.
What's best for your child?
Look at your child - will a lively, stimulated crèche atmosphere suit, or is the quieter environment of a childminder preferable?
Check the finances - if extended family isn't an option, an au pair is the least-expensive solution, followed by childminder, then crèche, then nanny.
Ask friends about their childcare options to get a sense of what works.
If you're thinking about crèche, do visit a number of providers so you can make comparisons.
Look at logistics - your commute, traffic, location of childcare - can you get back before crèche closes?
Consider a crèche near your workplace - as well as mitigating the risk of traffic, it means you can visit your baby during the work day - a lovely perk, and handy if you're breastfeeding.
If you leave very early for work, an au pair or a nanny works well, so children don't have to leave early too.
Useful websites: Childminding.ie, Rollercoaster.ie, Schooldays.ie, AuPairIreland.ie, ChildcareFinder.ie, NannyOptions.ie, MindMe.ie, Gumtree.ie.