Childcare — what you need to know

Hannah Nicholas
Sunday, October 28, 2007
If you aren't lucky enough to have a willing grandparent or other family member to look after your little one when you go back to work, you'll need to get acquainted with the ins and outs of childcare. We cover most of what you'll need to know here.

Your options…

Long daycare centre
These centres are either privately operated or government funded and run according to a daily program with emphasis on learning and development. They open certain fixed hours of the day, Monday to Friday, and generally accept children aged from six weeks up to preschool age. (Some go up to school age and include preschool programs.) The number of children the centre can take depends on child-to-staff ratios. These vary between states but typically for children under two there is one staff member to five children and for children aged two-to-three there is one staff member to eight children.

Family day care
This type of care involves your child being looked after by a registered and licensed caregiver in their home. Carers often look after four to five children at the same time and in some cases their own children too.

Contact your local council for a list childcare centres and family day care providers in your area.

This is the most expensive childcare option as your child will be cared for one-on-one in your home. The qualifications of nannies can vary dramatically so hiring a nanny through a specialist agency is the best way to go. Some families opt to share a nanny with another family in order to be able to afford the advantages of this type of childcare.

Waiting lists/when to apply…
Yes, it's true — you can wait up to 12 months or longer for a place in a childcare centre. Popular centres can have waiting lists as long as two years. So the best thing to do is put your child down on a number of waiting lists as early as possible (yes, even if they are only a month or two old, as your first choice might not become available in time (if at all).

Costs of childcare…
Generally, the younger the child, the more expensive the care (especially for children under two). Nannies cost upwards of $17 an hour and you will have to provide holiday and sick pay and superannuation if you don't go through an agency. Long daycare centres charge anywhere from $40-$90 a day and you'll usually have to pay the full-day's fees even if the child only attends for a half day, is sick or you go on holiday. Fees for family day care are set by the individual carers. The typical fee range is $4 to $8 an hour.

What to look for…
All licensed childcare providers have to abide by government policies and guidelines. These relate to staff qualifications, staff-to-child ratios, safety and environment. Written material covering all these aspects should be attainable from the individual centre.

Go to the centres themselves (visit each one a few times and at different times of the day and make sure you take your child with you) and check out the premises and staff in action. The important questions to ask yourself include:

  • What is the centre's program (including indoor and outdoor activities, food and sleep routines)?
  • Is the centre reasonably clean?
  • Do the children appear to be having a good time?
  • What condition are the toys and play equipment in?
  • Is there lots of space to play inside and out?
  • Is there a shady outdoor area? Are the kids outside wearing hats?
  • How are the staff treating the children (look for children who are crying and staff reactions)?
  • Does the centre look like it runs smoothly?
  • What activities/learning opportunities does the centre run for children?
  • What sort of meals/snacks do they serve?

Ask about these important things, too:

  • What are the hours, fees and number of children per age group?
  • What happens when my child is sick?
  • Will I pay for days we don't attend?
  • What happens if I'm late for pick-up?
  • What do I need to pack for my child?

Get recommendations from friends and family but remember, one parent's idea of a great centre can be another's nightmare. Often your first impressions are the best indicator of whether your child would be happy there.

If you're looking for a nanny or family day care provider, you need to look closely at the individual caregiver and whether that person has the right personality/values to look after your child.

Ask them the following types of questions:

  • Their qualifications and past experience (including first-aid and CPR).
  • What is their approach to childcare?
  • Why they like children?
  • What games/activities would they play with your child?
  • Their ideas on discipline and dealing with difficult behaviour.
  • What kinds of parents do they like to work for?
  • Ask them about different scenarios and how they would react (ie. what they'd do in an emergency, if your child started to develop a fever or your baby had been crying for hours on end).

Importantly, see how the individual bonds with your child and how your child reacts to them. You might want to meet with them a few times. With family day care providers, you'll need to visit their home too, to see the environment your child will be in.

Hot tips for parents…

  • Start your child in care before you go back to work (ie. One to two weeks beforehand) so you can be around to help with any settling issues.
  • Some parents believe it's better to start a child in daycare during the spring/summer months to avoid catching lots of bugs during colder weather.
  • Make sure the type of care or the carer you choose fits in with your parenting and family values.
  • You might be able to get a reduction on your childcare costs through the government. Contact your nearest Family Assistance Office for more information.

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