Childcare costs represent the largest monthly bill for more than a quarter of families in Northern Ireland, a new report reveals.
The average cost of full-time childcare per week increased by 2.5% in 2014 to £162, according to research published today by the Employers For Childcare Charitable Group.
The report indicates childcare costs represent the largest monthly bill for 27% of families here - eclipsing even mortgage or rent payments.
Almost 60% of the 4,500 parents surveyed said they struggled with the costs of childcare and 22% of respondents told the charity they rely on loans or credit cards to pay their childcare bills.
While 97% of people are happy with the quality of childcare, 61% of parents said there was insufficient provision in their local area.
At 48%, nearly half of all respondents said childcare costs placed them under increased financial pressure and 49% of parents were unsure at whether they were claiming all benefits and entitlements available.
According to the feedback received, the average childcare costs in Northern Ireland are:
Prices vary across Northern Ireland, with Co Antrim topping the chart for the highest day nursery costs (£163 per week) and childminding costs (£173 per week), while Co Fermanagh had the lowest day nursery costs (£129 per week) and childminding costs (£136 per week).
Parents also rely heavily on informal childcare arrangements with relatives, particularly grandparents.
The survey indicates 78% of parents access help from their own parents to look after children and 12% use other family members, while 3% use unregistered childminders and 3% use friends.
Employers For Childcare director, Mairaid McMahon, says the rising cost of childcare is "having serious effects on local families, with many parents making financial sacrifices just to make ends meet".
"Today we are calling on our devolved institutions to take some urgent action to help local parents navigate this increasingly complex, and expensive, system," she said.
"On the basis of our research findings, we are calling once again for significant and concerted efforts to be made at Executive level into improving the information and advice available to parents regarding their entitlement to financial support.
"This should include an awareness-raising campaign targeted specifically at parents, as well as the appointment of a single lead department with statutory responsibility for overseeing the delivery of quality, flexible and affordable childcare, recognising its contribution to economic growth and social inclusion."
Among the suggestions parents put forward to make childcare more affordable were capping costs and subsidising childcare.
They also called for stricter regulations on employers with regard to flexible working and offering financial assistance to grandparents who provide childcare.
The Child Poverty Alliance Report, published in 2014, showed more than 60% of children experiencing poverty now live in households in which at least one parent is working.
"We need to act today to protect these children from further disadvantage for many years to come, and to prevent working parents from getting into further financial difficulties as they try to balance their family's budgets," Mairaid added.
What Northern Ireland parents told Employers for Childcare:
51% reduced their working hours or left work altogether due to the high costs of childcare.
46% changed their working patterns due to childcare costs eg. working compressed hours, using annual leave entitlements to cover childcare, working opposite hours to each other.
Parents told the charity that changing employment patterns impact negatively on: career progression, family life, family incomes and their overall wellbeing.
Helen and David Todd from Bangor spend £600 per month on childcare for their seven-year-old son Josh. Helen says:
Josh is in school and then he goes to an after-school club at a day nursery.
That costs us £600 per month even if he doesn’t go. If he is off school we pay full cost unless we get a day as annual leave.
All of our relatives work full time so we have no informal childcare arrangements.
Josh has Type 1 diabetes so we had to find a childcare provider willing to look after his additional medical needs.
We pay the price for that. We don’t have much other option.
I would love to see more incentives for parents.
Tax credits are not an option for us, but we are not big earners. We work full time because it is more financially viable to do that and pay the nursery costs than it is for me to work part time or not work at all.
It costs more than our mortgage every month for sending Josh for 70 hours.
People don’t understand how much nursery costs.
Nurseries can’t charge any less than they do, as they have overheads and wages to pay.
If we were able to have Josh in a school-run after-school club that would be great but they end at 3pm or 4pm so he has to go to the nursery.
We think the education department could look at this.
They have limited resources but it would be so much better for families and the children if schools could provide more.
Leanne and Peter Hawthorne, a teacher and paramedic from Lisburn, spend £980 per month on childcare for their four-year-old Ruby and 10-month-old Ella. Leanne says:
Ruby gets wrap-around care before school from 7.30am until 9am and then they pick her up again at 2pm.
They will look after her until I pick her up at about 4.30pm. Ella is cared for from 7.30am to 4.30pm. In total it costs us £980 per month, which is £200 more than our mortgage.
We have family who will help us out at the weekend if we are going out socially.
The cost is ridiculous, it is our biggest bill.
We had to plan when we could have our second child because if we wanted to have two children we couldn’t afford to have them in full-time day care at the same time so we had to wait until Ruby started primary school to have Ella. The government should subsidise the childcare providers.
We both want to stay in work and contribute to society.
It shouldn’t be financially easier to not go to work. We feel we are being punished for working.
We have accepted we have no holidays until Ella starts primary school and our cars are 10 years old.
The government are all for getting everyone back to work but it’s easier to stay at home. We’re not of the mindset of having other people paying for our children.