“Before I even went to my first scan, my unborn baby’s name was down on a nursery waiting list,” says Laura Williams, 31. This was her second child and it had taken months to find a nursery spot for her first daughter, forcing her to take time off work. She had put in a request at five months pregnant but the waiting list had been a year long. “That’s crazy, seeing as a pregnancy is only nine months,” she says.
It’s a story that is playing out across England. A shortage of childcare places coupled with the huge costs of nurseries means women are questioning whether they should go back to work.
Only half (48%) of councils in England have sufficient childcare places to meet the demand of parents working full-time, down from 59% in 2022, according to Coram.The survey also found that a part-time place (25 hours a week) for a child under two in nursery now costs an average of £151 per week.
Williams, whose girls are now three and 14 months, is from Beverley, a market town in the East Riding of Yorkshire. “There is very little childcare in the area,” she says.
“The nursery we got into is on a farm, so it is spacious and fairly small. There are two other options near us.
“One of them has a maximum of 35 babies in their room, so it is overcrowded and felt like not a nice environment. The other is a preschool, so they can only join from two or three years. All the rest are childminders.”
The cost of it all is crippling: the fee of £1,400 a month is “significantly” more than the family’s mortgage.
“What is the point in going back to work when it is cheaper to not work at all?” she says, adding that the costs have recently increased from £47 to £54 a day. The rises are due to the cost of living and inflation, with food, heating and employee wages all going up.
Williams is eligible for 30 hours of free childcare but says it is difficult to use because you have to pay for wraparound care. “That is if you want to drop them off before 8am or collect after 4pm, which we do as we are teachers.
“We earn what we earn and it keeps us going but don’t have any spending money … part of it is our choice to have kids earlier. But where is the incentive for women to go back to work?”
Meg Pattern, 33, from Aldridge, near Walsall in the West Midlands, also looked for a nursery place when she was in early pregnancy.
“The lead time would have been a year and a half,” she says. Her son is now 15 months old and the nursery they found is a 30-minute drive away, which she says is “a bit of a nightmare”.
“There is not much choice,” she says. “The nursery we have got him in at the moment has got some issues. They have a gas boiler downstairs and I’ve spoken to other parents who have been complaining about it for weeks because there is a smell of oil.
“To consider nursery before you even have a child is a weird process because anything can happen.”
The cost is huge, so they can use the nursery only twice a week. Pattern, a project manager, says her parents take their son for two days and she dropped a day at work to look after him.
“The cost for a nursery has gone up £15-£20 since we first spoke to them,” she says. “To be honest, it’s putting us off having a second child, because I want a quality of life and don’t know what is happening to the cost of living.”
Pattern is realistic and says she realises that extra government money for childcare has to come from somewhere. But she says studies have shown that supporting women means more can work, which will boost the economy.
“It stresses me out because I worry about the future,” she says. “And maternity pay for a lot of people is ridiculous. It is stressful … everything has shot up.”
Evie Storey, 30, can relate to all these concerns, although it is not just nursery places that are hard to find. Based in Newcastle, she has struggled to find her little girl a childminder. “Other mothers have had issues and post about it on Facebook,” she says.
She cannot afford nursery and has found it stressful finding other care. “I’ve told loads of people that they have to sort out childcare while they are still pregnant,” she says.