As the cost of a childcare place hits £164 a week, one in four of Northern Ireland parents say they have to use credit cards or payday loans to pay for it
The cost of childcare in Northern Ireland has hit its highest ever level, with a full-time place now a huge £164 a week.
For a quarter of local families, having their children looked after represents the largest monthly bill, eclipsing mortgage and rent payments.
New research also shows that 61% of 5,000 parents surveyed said they struggled to meet their childcare bills, with just under a quarter getting into debt to pay for it.
Campaigners have warned that bills are spiralling out of control. A report published today by the charity Employers for Childcare reveals that full-time childcare costs, on average, are £8,528 per year.
That is up 1.2% from the 2014 figure of £8,424.
To put it into context, the average mortgage payment is now £139 per week in Northern Ireland, compared to £164 per week for an average full-time childcare place.
The figures come just weeks after the Government announced plans to change Tax Credit eligibility, which will leave 121,000 Ulster families worse off from next April.
Of the 5,000 local parents who participated in the study, 56% admitted they were under increased financial pressure due to their childcare bill, with almost a quarter saying they were forced to rely on credit cards, overdrafts or payday loans to meet the cost.
The findings present a stark picture of cash-strapped families struggling to make ends meet and making difficult decisions about work, home-life and spending.
People with children who cannot rely on their parents or other relatives to help with childcare, or those on low incomes, can face insurmountable financial challenges that push them out of the workplace completely.
And, in many cases, when a couple has children in close succession, it is cheaper for one parent to give up their job and become a full-time carer rather than struggle to pay for two childcare places.
Marie Marin, chief executive of Employers for Childcare, said bills were spinning out of control.
"Once again, the cost of childcare has increased higher than the rate of inflation, and our report shows that families are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the cost," she added.
"These findings are particularly worrying considering the massive implications that the proposed changes to tax credits will have for thousands of families here.
"Family incomes are decreasing, yet the cost of childcare continues to rise.
"We call on the Executive to ensure that the forthcoming Childcare Strategy takes meaningful steps to address the affordability of childcare."
Ms Marin also urged the Executive to make childcare affordability a key focus of the strategy and called for targeted investment of money.
"The long-overdue draft strategy, which is currently open for consultation, needs to commit to implementing the necessary changes to support families," she said.
"At a time of limited resources, any money spent should be invested wisely and targeted at ways of addressing the crucial problem of affordability.
"In particular, Employers For Childcare calls for the strategy to include a firm commitment to ensure that all parents are aware and availing of the financial support available with the cost of childcare, focusing on the provision of direct advice.
"This is particularly important considering the range of changes to support which will take place in the coming months."
Key findings from the report
61% struggle with their childcare costs either throughout the year or at some point during it.
25% of families say childcare costs are their largest monthly outgoing.
56% of parents say childcare costs put them under increased financial pressure.
24% of parents regularly rely on other means to meet their childcare bill, such as credit cards, overdrafts, loans from family members and friends or payday loans.
51% of parents are unsure if they are claiming all the financial help available to their family.