The role of informal childcare

'Informal childcare' refers to childcare provided by grandparents, other relatives, friends and neighbours. This study combined a literature review with secondary analysis to draw together good quality evidence on the subject of informal childcare, and to highlight the gaps in that evidence.

Main findings

  • A decade after the introduction of the National Childcare Strategy, a large number of families continue to use informal childcare, usually grandparents, to meet their childcare needs. It is used by families across the socio-economic spectrum and for children of all ages.
  • Families often use informal care as part of a ‘package’ that includes both formal and informal care, particularly for preschool children. It is more likely than formal care to be used to cover non-standard work or study hours.
  • More families were using informal childcare in 2008 than in 1998, reflecting the increase in the number of working families, both lone parents and couples, during this period. The use of formal childcare has also increased (more sharply than informal care), largely as a result of government interventions such as the National Childcare Strategy. 
  • Although the fact that informal care is a low or no cost option is an important factor in parents’ reasons for choosing informal providers, it is rarely their sole or primary reason. For example, parents often cite the ‘caring environment’ offered by informal care as their reason for choosing it.
  • There are no significant advantages or disadvantages to children’s educational or socio-emotional outcomes as a result of being looked after by informal carers. Any small associations identified at age three usually disappear by age five.
  • Following examination of the economic arguments for government intervention to encourage or support the use of informal childcare, the research team concluded there was no evidence to support such intervention. In particular, it is not possible to tell whether remunerating informal childcarers would lead to an increase in the use of informal care.