Flexible child care and Australian parents' work and care decision-making

Flexible child care and Australian parents' work and care decision-making

Jennifer Baxter, Kelly Hand and Reem Sweid

Research Report No. 37 — November 2016
Flexible child care and Australian parents' work and care decision-making

Key messages

Decision-making about work and care is complex, and varies considerably across families depending on work characteristics of parents, ages of children, family structure and the availability of child care options.

Many parents valued the way they could meet their care needs informally, covering the care needs themselves or with the help of extended families. This was especially so for care at non-standard hours including evenings, overnight and weekends.

Among parents working non-standard hours, formal care options were used and centre-based arrangements valued. The lack of flexibility in formal care was a challenge for these parents.

More difficulties with meeting child care needs were experienced in larger families and those living away from extended family such as in regional areas.

Parents often adjust their employment to allow them to meet their child care needs, through changing jobs or reducing work hours. This can allow parents to provide care themselves or minimise non-parental child care. For some this is their preference, while for others it is because child care is not available that would otherwise meet their child care needs.

Parents wanted access to a range of child care options to allow for changing needs, and had varied needs for children of different ages within the family.

Parents wished for improved access to flexible care, especially for variable shifts and for non-standard work hours. However, there was some lack of certainty that formal options could meet such care needs, with a high value placed on informal care solutions, despite being challenging to negotiate and requiring compromises to incomes, family time or careers.

It is commonly stated that there is a need for flexible child care to be available to parents especially for those who work variable or non-standard hours, given the 24/7 nature of today's labour market. But Australian and international research shows that parents' decision-making about work and child care is complex and varied. This research report explores how parents make decisions about work and care, especially when faced with shift work or inflexible job conditions.

We ask here, what flexible child care arrangements are families seeking, and are those arrangements available? We further ask what are the barriers to families accessing different models of flexible care? This research draws upon interviews with Australian parents, with many of them working as police or nurses and so directly able to discuss how their child care needs are met in a context of working variable or non-standard hours. This interview data is examined along with some national survey data, and also survey data from parents of children engaged with specific school-aged care services, to include the perspectives of other Australian families.

Authors and Acknowledgements

This report uses data collected through an AIFS evaluation of the Child Care Flexibility Trials, which AIFS undertook for the Department of Education (responsibility for Child Care moved to the Department of Social Services in March 2015 and then to the Department of Education and Training in November 2015). The authors are grateful to the department, in particular the team responsible for the Child Care Flexibility Trials, who were a valuable support throughout this project.

The authors would also like to thank the participants who made time to talk to us about their needs for and use of flexible child care, or to provide information about their work, family and child care through the online survey.

Views expressed in this report are those of the individual authors and may not reflect the views of the Australian government, including the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Department of Education and Training and the Department of Social Services.

Publication details

Research Report
No. 37
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, November 2016.
98 pp.
Suggested citation:

Baxter, J. A., Hand, K., & Sweid, R. (2016). Flexible child care and Australian parents' work and care decision-making (Research Report No. 37). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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