In an ideal world we would all live near willing parents or a sibling who is prepared to help with childcare, since this is the cheapest form of help and tends to work very well. However in reality most people will need to use some form of professional childcare, even if it is to support the assistance provided by friends and family.
Principally, your choice will be governed by a set of practical considerations such as how much you can afford to pay, how many hours of cover you need, and how flexible you need that cover to be. The options for babies or very young children include a nanny, either living in or out, a shared nanny arrangement, a child minder or a day nursery.
The range expands slightly for older pre-school children to include mother’s helps and nursery schools which may or may not take your child for a full school day. Au pairs can fill a gap in a very limited way, because of their youth and inexperience, and are best suited to looking after school-age children. The availability of breakfast clubs and after-school clubs has increased significantly in recent years which can provide a life-line for older children, but these often only deliver term-time solutions.
In terms of cost the nanny is the most expensive option costing between £175-£400 a week plus tax, National Insurance contributions and board and lodging, depending on where you live. Live-out nannies cost even more, but sharing can lessen the financial burden. Nurseries can cost as much as a nanny, charging anything from £90-£250 for a full week, depending on their location and whether they are run privately or by the local authority. The average nursery weekly cost is about £170.
A mother’s help can be a more affordable and very satisfactory solution for slightly older children at £6-£10 per hour. Child minders charge anything from £70 to £200 a week depending on where in the country they operate. You should expect to pay an au pair £50-£100 a week, for a limited number of hours work. Pre-schools usually offer half a day of structured play and charges vary enormously from as little as £6 a session to over £150 for five mornings, but they don’t really offer a childcare solution in themselves, unless you work very limited hours.