Parties fighting the Assembly election have been warned childcare here "lags woefully" behind the rest of the UK.
The Family and Childcare Trust urged all candidates to make the issue a priority if elected in less than two weeks' time.
Despite the last Assembly passing the Children's Services Co-Operation Act, the trust said parents here were missing out. In England, Scotland and Wales, legislation requires councils to ensure sufficient childcare, but there is no such obligation here.
Family and Childcare Trust chief executive Julia Margo said: "We're pleased that the Northern Ireland Executive published a childcare strategy in 2013 and has pledged to increase the number of places. But this alone will not help working parents.
"It is crucial the new Assembly takes steps to fill childcare gaps so parents who want to work can do so. It is also important that an announcement on free early education comes soon after the election so parents learn if they are to benefit from the expanded hours that parents in England and Scotland will receive.
"For too long Northern Ireland has lagged behind the rest of the UK. This election presents an opportunity to prioritise childcare so that it meets the needs of modern working families."
She added that childcare provision levels had contributed to low levels of female employment here. In January of this year, just 63.1% of working age women were employed, compared with a UK average of 69.1%.
The Children's Services Co-Operation Act, supported by all parties at Stormont, places a legal duty on government agencies to co-operate when it comes to children's services.