All busy mums deserve the odd break, whether it's to take a yoga class, nip to the shops to buy a new outfit or have your hair cut. However, you can't always rely on friends and family to help out. That's where crèches come in – they offer an option that's cheaper and more flexible than more formal childcare such as nurseries.


What’s the difference between a crèche and a nursery?

Crèches generally only take children for a couple of hours at a time, even if they are open all day. They're designed to provide occasional childcare during certain events (such as a training course or a wedding) or during certain activities (shopping, going to the gym).

Different types of crèches include:

Sessional crèches These are attached to institutions such as an adult education college. They're brilliant if, say, you want to do a course to retrain, or take up a hobby from dressmaking to pottery. While your child is in the crèche, parents have to stay on the premises. These crèches are only available at certain times, up to four hours per session.

Full-day crèches, as the name suggests, are open all day, and are attached to places like gyms or shopping centres – so, for example, you can go swimming or enjoy a little me-time in the sauna. However, you'll still only be able to leave your child for a short time. You're usually free to leave the premises if you wish.

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While crèches are designed to be flexible, you often need to book a space in advance – for example, if there's a popular dance class. Always ask how far ahead you can reserve a place so you don't miss out.

Where can you find crèches?

Crèches can be found in shopping centres or stores (some branches of Ikea have them for children aged over 3), leisure and sports centres, adult education collages as well as children's centres. They're particularly common as a perk in private members' gyms, though often only at certain times of the week. You might also find them in some hospitals and workplaces, while private operators can offer 'mobile crèche' services for one-off events such as weddings, parties, trade shows or conferences.

What do crèches offer?

Crèches should offer a safe place for little ones to play, with a decent range of age-appropriate toys, and creative activities (for example, dressing up costumes), to keep them busy while mums and dads enjoy a little time off from childcare. They frequently have soft play areas, and a common sight is the familiar 'ball pits' that toddlers love bouncing around in.Staff may be able to offer children a drink if they are thirsty or a snack, and change nappies (as long as parents leave clearly labelled supplies). They can also give babies bottles if you provide them.

What should a good crèche look like?

Welcoming, bright and happy without being overcrowded! It should be clean, have attentive staff in sufficient numbers and there should be enough stimulation to keep children occupied for a couple of hours while mum's away.

The number of children a crèche can accommodate will depend on the floorspace, and age-ranges of the children it takes. You should feel confident that staff will adequately monitor and look after your child's needs. Before you go, you will need to let them know if your child has any allergies, takes any special medication or has specific dietary requirements.

How long can you leave your child at a crèche?

It depends on the facility, the age limits and if it's Ofsted-registered (see below), but typically you won't be allowed to leave your child for more than two hours.

Do crèches have to be Oftsted-registered?

This all depends on the type of crèche, what ages it caters for, how long they look after children for, and if parents stay on the premises or not. In general, they need to registered if: they are open for more than four hours a day; if parents aren't in the immediate vicinity; or if they provide care for children under 8 for more than 14 days in a year:

  • Any facility that caters for children aged under 8 years for more than two hours a day on non-domestic premises must be Ofsted-registered.
  • If a crèche caters for children aged under 8 for four hours or less per day, and parents stay on the premises (eg at a college, or in a leisure centre), it doesn't need to be registered with Ofsted. If parents are allowed to go home, or off site, then children can only be left for up to two hours at a time.
  • Even if the crèche doesn't officially need to be Ofsted-approved, it can opt to join the Voluntary Ofsted Childcare Register (VOCR) – it's well worth checking as this shows a commitment to high standards.

What age are children able to go to a crèche?

This depends on the facility: some gyms are happy to take children aged from as young as 6 weeks (though it depends if you're comfortable with that!). Others only cater for children aged two years or over. Ikea stores take children aged 3 and up. There will be an upper limit too, which could be anything from four years to eight years or more.

What’s the ratio of staff to children at a crèche?

Crèches should ideally follow Ofsted-guidelines, with a ratio of: one member of staff to three children for babies from 3 months to 2 years, a ratio of one to four for children aged 2 to 3, and a ratio of one to eight for those aged 3 to 8.

Are crèche staff qualified?

If it's a full-day care crèche, the leader, deputy and half of the staff need to hold a recognised childcare qualification. Ideally, at least one person will hold a first-aid certificate, and it's worth checking this first for your peace of mind.

How much do crèches cost?

Good news for mums - crèches are often free if they are attached to a shop, private gym or workplace. However, they may make a small charge per hour: as a rough guide expect to pay around £2.50-£3.50 per hour in a local council leisure centre.

Can you claim childcare tax credits when you use a crèche?

No, in general you can't. However, you may be able to use childcare vouchers (where you sacrifice part of your salary to save money on income tax and NI) to pay for a registered crèche.


Can I use the 15 hours free nursery entitlement for 3-4-year-olds with a crèche?

Technically yes. Some crèches will let you do so, so it's worth asking, according to the Daycare Trust. However, even if a care provider is Ofsted-registered, it doesn't necessarily mean they offer the free hours.


Cheryl Freedman has been working as a journalist for 20 years, and began writing about parenting when her son was a baby back in 2009. She's written reviews and features for MFM, testing everything from booster seats to strollers and writing guides to breast-feeding, infant nutrition and more.