The costs of childcare can be daunting. So what are your options and how can the government help?
By Stephen Burke
Director of the charity Daycare Trust
Finding the right childcare is key to achieving a balance between work and family life, from which both you and your children will benefit.
Good childcare has a lasting impact on children's development and life chances.
Research has shown that quality childcare and early education support is vital to a child's social and educational development.
There are several different childcare options available to parents returning to work.
According to the latest Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) figures, there is still only one childcare place for every five children under the age of eight.
Many childcare settings have waiting lists for places, particularly for babies under a year old, so it's worth investigating the options as soon as you can.
Childminders are based in their own homes and have to be registered with Ofsted.
They are a good option for very young children and for parents who need more flexible care for their children in order to fit in with working hours.
Children often stay with a childminder from babyhood to when they go to school and need after-school care.
In the mix
Nurseries provide care for children aged from around six months up to five years old.
They are usually open from 8am-6pm. The advantage of nurseries are that your child will be able to mix with a larger group of children.
Furthermore, if a staff member is ill, you will not have to change your childcare arrangements.
Older children may need care outside school hours and during the holidays.
Out of school clubs provide safe places for children to enjoy a range of activities with children of their own age.
If you have several children, a nanny may make sense.
Nannies do not need to be registered by Ofsted, although many have childcare qualifications.
Often nannies "live in", making it a very flexible form of childcare, and as nannies are employed by you, you can have more say in your children's routines.
But lack of space in many British homes means a live-in nanny is a reality for only a few well-to-do families.
Your local Children's Information Service will have information about all the registered childcare available in your area.
To find out more, contact Childcare Link on 0800 096 02 96 or log on to:
Draw up a list of childcare options that are appropriate to your needs, and then make some appointments to visit the different childcare settings, so that you can decide which ones you and your child feel most comfortable in.
Once you know what options are available to you, you need to find out about how much your childcare will cost.
British parents pay more for their childcare than any other parents in Europe.
Recent research has shown that a typical nursery place for a two-year old costs £128 a week, although fees can be much higher in some areas of the country.
But there is some help available to cover childcare costs.
The government has pledged that all three and four year olds will have access to a free part-time early education place by March 2004.
In addition, for families working 16 hours or more a week some help may be available through the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit.
This pays up to 70% of the cost of registered childcare, to a maximum of £135 a week for one child or £200 for two or more children.
For more information, call the Tax Credit Helpline on 0845 300 3900 or visit the Inland Revenue website.