Trying to find childcare for a new baby in Ireland in 2021 is nothing short of a nightmare, if accounts from parents are anything to go by. Many crèches won’t take children under one, waiting lists are often more than a year long and the cost can be crippling, even with the new childcare subsidy scheme. If taking a career break is out and you don’t live near family, your only option may be an 'unregistered’ childminder - if you’re lucky enough to find one.

One reason childminders are so hard to find is because most are caring for too few children to be on any official register. Childminders can only register with Tusla when they mind four or more pre-schoolers or seven or more school-age children. Currently, there are only 73 childminders registered with Tusla, who can offer parents places subsidised under the National Childcare Scheme. Even though many childminders provide great childcare and family support, the system simply does not allow them to register.

How childminders support the economy

Despite this, childminding is widespread, supporting thousands of families. Estimates of the number of childminders in Ireland range from 15,000 to 35,000 in recent years. In 2016, they provided childcare for an estimated 43,000 pre-school children and a further 44,000 school age children, based on the census returns and the Quarterly National Household Survey on childcare of that year.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One in 2019, Frances Byrne from Early Childhood Ireland discusses the launch of a new Draft Action Plan for Childminding

In fact, this remarkable, almost invisible workforce forms the backbone of childcare support for young working families, keeping our economy on the road day in, day out. For many parents, childminding is the preferred option. Childminders provide childcare for children of all ages, keeping siblings together, working with families for years. They are much more flexible in terms of shift patterns: during the pandemic, childminders kept essential workers at work, when most crèches were closed due to lockdowns. And childminders are often more affordable too – even with the subsidised childcare scheme.

So, why don’t childminders just grow bigger services and then register with Tusla and the National Childcare Scheme? To understand that you have to ask who are childminders and why do they go into childminding?

How childminding actually works

Childminders typically start as young parents. My research on childminding in Ireland showed that the main motivation for starting a childminding service was to earn enough income to be able to afford to stay at home, caring for their own babies and toddlers. The primary goal was to create a lovely home environment for children – their own and their minded children – where loving, close relationships could flourish, and real-life learning was the only curriculum.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy reports on childcare reform in Ireland

Childminders bring children from other families into the intimacy of the family home. This is not a purpose-built, child-sized environment, open 8am -6pm, but a home – often adapted and enriched with extra toys, books, art materials and play equipment to be sure – but basically a home where all the generations live, eat, work and sleep.

In fact, the essence of childminding is ‘a close bond with a few children in a home environment,’ as one childminder put it. Both childminders and parents value these key differences. When asked to rank the reasons why they would choose childminding for a child, childminders and parents agreed unanimously: (i) The relationships between the childminder, children, and parents; (ii) the one-on-one care and nurture for each child, and (iii) the rich home learning environment.

All this is good for children too. The Growing Up in Ireland study has shown that at 5 years of age, children cared for by childminders had better speech and language development, fewer socio-emotional difficulties, and more pro-social behaviour than children in other forms of childcare.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir from the Icelandic Women's Rights Association and Sonya Lennon from WorkEqual on Iceland's world-leading childcare

What childminders are looking for

Ultimately, childminders in the study were willing to register if - and only if - the regulations respect, honour, and support the essential differences that make childminding what it is. The small (and falling) number of childminders registered with Tusla tells us that childminders are not interested in registration under early years’ regulations designed for childcare centres. Endless paperwork, unannounced inspections, visits from multiple government departments in your own home: who would want this? Not even the prospect of being able to offer subsidised childcare places is enough to attract more childminders into the system, apparently.

Even though the new National Action Plan for Childminding (2021-2028) promises regulations specific to childminding, some childminders still fear extinction. They are concerned that subsidised childcare will force them to charge even lower fees and make it impossible to run a viable childminding service. They wonder just how sensitive an inspection could really be. The more optimistic of them hope for experienced childminding support workers, who will enable childminding to thrive. They dream of really relevant training in local networks where isolated childminders could support each other and learn together.

This type of system already exists in Denmark and France. If the national action plan is well implemented, a new childminder support system will be created here too, with access to subsidies for parents using childminders. Perhaps by 2028, it will be possible to look up a register of local childminders and find thousands available all over the country. Perhaps childminders might even find what they are looking for: the public recognition and support they deserve.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ