Choosing the right childcare for your child is a big decision, and there is rarely an easy solution.  The nursery you most like may well be unaffordable or in the wrong location, and how do you judge what a good nursery is anyway?  It’s a very personal choice, and here are a few pointers that may help you along the way, based on feedback from parents that I’ve met over the last 30 years.

Is a nursery right for my child?

The first question is likely to be whether you want a day nursery or a different kind of childcare.  Childminders are in short supply in some areas, but if you have non-standard working hours, or you want a real home-from-home environment, it may be worth looking at childminders.  A nanny may offer even more flexibility, and will look after your child or children in your own home, but this is usually the most expensive option.  This blog is about choosing nurseries, but some of the advice may also be useful if you look at other types of childcare.  Many parents will end up with a solution that involves combination of family and formal childcare, and only you will know what will work best for you and your child. Pre-schools (which used to be called playgroups) usually offer sessional care for over 2’s, so may be very useful to combine with home-based childcare arrangements, but the rest of this blog is about day nurseries, which usually offer a one-stop shop for working parents of babies, toddlers and pre-school children, and open at least from 8.00am – 6.00pm, often longer.

Where do I look?

Firstly, it helps to decide whether you want a nursery nearer to home or work – and if there are two parents, does it need to be convenient for you both, or will one of you do most of the dropping off and picking up? Draw up a shortlist based on the practicalities of commuting and opening hours – a recipe for a stressful day would be a nursery half an hour away from work if you finish at 5.30pm and the nursery closes at 6.00pm!

Two places to use in drawing up a shortlist are the Ofsted website (on the ‘find an inspection report’), and  With both of these you can put in your postcode and find the nurseries closest to home (or work).  Ofsted reports are fairly short these days, and are usually based on one inspector’s visit covering just a few hours, and you may find that the latest report is a few years old – so never make a choice entirely on an inspection report.  The daynurseries site is more like trip advisor, so will have a range of reviews from current parents, which can be very helpful.  Armed with a shortlist of nurseries that sound suitable and are in the right location, you’re ready to make enquiries.

What do I ask?

Firstly, check the opening hours, the cost, and whether they have vacancies. It will be very frustrating if you choose a nursery only then to realise that it won’t work in practical terms. With costs, bear in mind that different nurseries may have different charging structures, so check the following:

  • What do fees include? Are all meals, snacks, milk, nappies, wipes and activities included, or are there ‘optional extras’?
  • Is there a registration fee, and how much do you have to pay in advance? (standard practice is for nursery fees to be payable at the beginning of each month) Some will charge a deposit that is refundable, others charge non-refundable registration fees.
  • Are fees charged on bank holidays and closure days (eg Christmas closure or training days)?
  • How are fees calculated? Are they annualised so that they’re the same each month, or charged on an actual basis, varying according to the number of days each month?
  • Are there any discounts for siblings, or other situations, like term-time only attendance?

Most nurseries have standard sessions; mornings, afternoons and full days, and some also offer ‘short days’.  It’s standard practice to charge fees even when your child is ill or on holiday, (nurseries still have to pay their staff and overheads) but some may offer swaps or a discount during long absences.  It’s rare for nurseries to be able to accommodate part-time attendance that changes each week, so your choice may be very limited if you have an irregular shift pattern.

What do I look for?

So when you’re ready to visit, make sure you look at several nurseries, even if you’re pretty sure you know which one you want.  Reviews, inspection reports and marketing materials can be very misleading, and the only way to judge for yourself is to see for yourself. Ideally take your partner or a friend or relative, and/or your child.  Try to have a timescale which means you can revisit if you’re not sure after the first round of visits.  A second visit at a different time of day may show the nursery in a completely different light. After visiting a few nurseries, you will also have questions that arise that you may want to go back and check out with the first.  Here are just a few of the main points to cover:

  • Safe, clean and secure premises should be a given, and the outside play areas are as important as the inside.
  • Find out how much time children spend inside and how much space and freedom they have to move around, including outside. Are there walks or outings outside the nursery?
  • Furniture and equipment isn’t the most important feature, but if it’s limited and of poor quality, it may indicate a lack of investment that might affect the quality of care.
  • The staff are the most important aspect of any setting. Is the team well qualified, and are they diverse, with a good balance of mature experienced staff and younger team members? (Male practitioners are still a rarity, sadly, so it’s a bonus if there are any). Continuity of care is important – ask how long staff have been there.
  • Find out which staff would be caring for your child. Each child will be given a key person, and although it’s unlikely the nursery will know who that might be before starting, find out more about the qualifications and experience of the staff in your child’s age group. 
  • How many children are in each age group, and how many times will your child change groups? (A few smaller nurseries may offer vertical age grouping, but there are usually at least two or three different age groups from babies to pre-schoolers)
  • What range of activities are underway, and are the children having fun? Mid-morning visits will usually show the nursery at its best, but if you arrive later, ask about earlier activities – you may see evidence of a fantastic messy activity that finished just before you arrive.  Don’t expect to see tidiness all of the time, but the environment should be inviting and attractive.
  • Are there quiet places and times as well as opportunities for children to be active and noisy? Is there a daily routine, and how does the nursery adapt to your child’s individual needs?
  • What is the menu, and what are the arrangements for meals – are they cooked on site? Can they accommodate dietary needs or preferences?  Don’t be afraid to ask for details of the food – about whether the eggs are free-range, for example.
  • Ask how information is shared with parents – not only about meals, sleeps, nappies, but about what your child does during the day? Are observations written and how are they shared? (Many nurseries have software that shares pictures and observations with parents through an app).
  • Ask about the settling in process. If it isn’t flexible to your child’s pace of settling in, be concerned, it should be.  Some nurseries will offer home visits – do take up the offer if it’s there, as it’s an excellent way to start off a genuine partnership with the nursery and your child’s key person, and a clear indication to your child that their new carers are people you trust.

And a few other things to consider…

Every nursery is different, and although recommendations are one of the best ways to find a good nursery, only you will know which nursery will suit your child.  Some parents prefer smaller, owner-managed nurseries, and others will prefer the much larger nurseries operated by one of the big chains – it depends on what your own personal preferences and priorities are.  Each nursery will have its own ethos and values, and some may follow particular philosophies such as Montessori.  Some will focus strongly on ‘school-readiness’ and others may be more child-centred, so it helps for you to think about what is important to you, particularly if you’re looking for a baby place, as you also need to think ahead to what the nursery offers as your child grows. 

Finally, beware the sales pitch, and trust your instinct.  Don’t be afraid to return for a second (or even third) visit before making up your mind. It’s an enormous investment, both financially and emotionally, and ideally not one you want to change once your child has settled in.

PS I haven’t even touched on the funded hours that are now available for some 2 year olds and all three and four year olds, or on tax-free childcare – but all nurseries should be able to explain this in more detail to you on your visits!