Although parents appreciate that daycare means they are leaving their most precious possessions in another person's care, it's a common complaint that the cost is high. As Lara, a mum of two says: "We are spending $980 per week on child care, struggling to pay our bills and struggling to understand why the hell I work 45 hours a week for $200 and hardly get to see my kids."
Emma, a Perth mum, has the same problem. "We have no family where we live, so we have no choice but to have one person work and the other stay at home full-time. We worked out if we both worked full-time and put our two kids in full-time care we'd save less than $30 dollars a week!
"To send both kids would cost roughly $52,000, of which we'd get only $15,000 back. We'd also lose our Family Tax Benefit payment. I would love to know how we could both work and put our kids in care at least a few days a week and be better off."
But it's not only financial costs – the childcare situation adds personal stress for parents, too.
As Phoebe, a mother of two school-aged children, says, "I was paying $85 a day for holiday care and $45 for after-school care. We were struggling, and along with full-time work for both of us, the house and the cooking and washing and EVERYTHING was overwhelming."
So what can families do to beat the childcare budget blues? For some, the answer is to get creative.
For Phoebe, the solution to being over-stretched and stressed has been to hire an au pair. "We now have a young German woman who has done a year as an au pair in Italy before coming to Australia. She has fitted in very well – we really try and have her as a member of our family. She picks both the kids up from school and hangs around with the eight-year-old, who is able to have friends over for play dates. She does our washing, cooks dinner most nights, and once a week does the bathrooms and floors," she says.
"We pay her $200 a week then she has three meals a day from home, a room, television and wifi access."
Standard au pair rates are around $200 a week for 35-40 hours, plus full board and room. However, there is no childcare rebate for au-pairs.
Having live-in childcare may not be an option for you, or you may have babies or younger children so prefer more formal childcare, but you can still shave off some costs. Here are some ideas.
Costs are high here, due to the overheads of running a high quality centre with trained staff and providing a safe and stimulating environment. Also, if you go on holiday or your child is unwell and can't attend, you pay for the days your child is absent. When you consider that this is keeping a space for your child, this is fair. However, if you have an option to work a few days a week or you can have a family member care for your child one day or more, consider enrolling your child from Tuesday to Thursday – public holidays tend to fall on Mondays and some Fridays and you pay anyway, so this could save you a bit, depending how many children you have.
The benefits for babies and younger children are that your child receives personalised one-on-one care in their own familiar surroundings, following their own natural rhythms and routines, and you don't have the stress of drop off and pick up.
The downside? Unless your nanny is a registered childcare provider, there is no government rebate so, at around $25 an hour, if you only have one child this can be an expensive option.
One way to minimise costs is to nanny share. You need to work closely with another family and plan which home the children will be at or whether you will rotate, and think about age gaps between little ones, as well as preferred activities and routines, but with careful planning this can work well.
A family daycare educator cares for a small number of children (less than four preschoolers) in her own home. Educators are registered with a family daycare service that is responsible for approving, supporting, training and advising its educators, so you are getting a trained professional. This can be a less expensive option than a childcare centre, as you only pay for the hours you actually use.
If you are working part-time or freelancing you can often be more creative at cheating on childcare costs.
While grandparents can seem an obvious way to get cheap childcare, many mums, like Fiona – who has a seven month old and works part-time from home – feel guilty that they may be imposing on grandparents. For now, at least, she can breastfeed and be there as her baby needs her, and her mum is happy to offer support and enjoy the connection with her grandbaby.
Of course, not everyone has family to help out, so other options include sharing care with a friend who also works part-time.
Jessica, mother of a seven-month-old says, "My friend from mothers group and I swap kids one day a week. They are the same age and it works really well, as they pretty much have the same routine."
If you're a freelancer or work from home but need short spells of childcare, you could spend an extra hour at the gym and use crèche time to make phone calls, then do the rest of your work when your child is asleep. You could also set up a babysitting club with a small group of likeminded friends, using a program such as mybabysitter.com to organize times and track hours.
Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Parenting by Heart and Toddler Tactics. Check out Pinky's books and seminars for parents at www.pinkymckay.com.