A home away from home?


You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 


Content type
Family Matters article

April 1992


Family day care schemes in Australia provide supervised care for children in the private homes of licensed caregivers. Mothers' views and their use of family day care were examined as part of the Institute's Early Childhood Study, which looked at the use of non-parental child care in the preschool years. This article examines the role of family day care, how mothers found out about it, their feelings about its advantages or disadvantages, what qualities they looked for in the caregiver, and what they consider to be the ideal form of child care. Case studies are presented to give an idea of the nature of the relationship between the family day care provider, the mother and the child.

Family day care for many working parents is the next best thing to being at home themselves to look after their children. It is less formal than a child care centre, with supervised care for children being provided in the private homes of licenced carers, often mothers with small children of their own. It can be, when successful, a home away from home.

Family day care schemes throughout Australia are organised and supported by non-profit, incorporated community organisations and local government authorities. The operational costs are funded through a system of subsidies and grants from the Commonwealth Government, with fees being income-related and varying according to the costs of services (Petrie 1990:19).

The number of family day care places has been increased over the last decade or so, often in preference to centre- based care. The schemes are cheaper to operate because of low wages and because carers are not covered by many basic industrial conditions (Brennan and O'Donnell 1986).

Petrie (1990:23), in her recent report on usage trends in family day care, calls it an 'almost invisible service with a low public profile'. She goes on to say that 'although approximately 56,000 children across the nation are cared for by family day care services, these children are absorbed into existing homes within communities requiring no new buildings, space or facilities dedicated solely to their needs. Utilisation of family day care places is largely dependent upon informal networking within communities to advertise the uniqueness of the service to families'.

The Early Childhood Study

Mothers' views and their use of family day care were examined as part of the Institute's Early Childhood Study, which looked at the use of non-parental child care in the pre-school years. The sample was selected on the basis of the length of time that children were in non-parental care in their first 12 months, and over-represents mothers who were in the labour force in the pre-school years. The study is retrospective and in the interviews mothers talked about the care of the target child (who had just started school) and their own experiences in and out of the workforce since the birth of that child.

Five hundred and ninety-one of the 728 mothers interviewed had had jobs at some time before the target child started school. The main motivation to return to full- time work was financial. However, mothers who returned to part-time work said they chose part-time mainly because it fitted in with other responsibilities, including the care of children.

Returning to Work

Sixteen per cent of the mothers (94 mothers) who had returned to work used family day care when they first returned, including some who had also used some other form of care. Overall, among the working mothers in this sample, family day care ranked third to other forms of care when mothers first returned to work. Care by relatives was the first choice, child care centres the second and the fourth was part-time care by husbands. Some mothers used a combination of carers.

When mothers were asked why they had chosen family day care on their first return to work (mothers could give more than one reason), 42 per cent said they preferred it to child care centres. Thirty-four per cent mentioned convenience and said the scheme suited the needs of their child, and 31 per cent that it was the only or most acceptable form of child care available. The cost and the fact family day care was cheaper than alternatives was specifically mentioned by only 4 per cent of mothers, although some of those who stated that this was the most acceptable form of care may have been influenced by its relatively low cost. The following replies to the question are typical.

'It was in her (the child's) best interests to choose family day care. I didn't want a child care centre as they tend to organise children too early and have a high staff turnover. I wanted a one-to-one relationship for the child.' (mother returned to work part-time when the child was 14 months old)

'My older child had been in family day care with a good mother. I thought that was the best form of care. When I first went back to work after having my older child, he was in a creche and we had some really bad experiences.' (mother returned to work full-time when the child was ten months old)

'Because they mind the kids in their own home and there is a family atmosphere.' (mother returned to part-time work when child was three weeks old because they needed the money)

'I had advice from my sister-in-law who said that in family day care, my child would be able to mix with other kids without losing out on attention (not too many kids). My sister-in-law knew a woman who ran family day care and was familiar with it.' (mother returned to work full-time when child was ten months old in order to qualify for long service leave or she would not have returned)

'I knew the family day care provider very well.' (mother returned to work part-time when child was nine months old)

'I had no other choices and I combined it with some care by my husband.' (mother returned to work full-time when child was two months old)

Family Day Care in the Pre-School Years

Overall, 177 mothers had used family day care at some time before their child started school, although not necessarily when they first returned to work. Twenty-eight per cent had used two or more family day care providers before their child started school, and of this group, 12 per cent had used three or more carers. A number of mothers had also used other forms of child care.

When these mothers were asked why they chose to use family day care at any time during the pre-school years, 34 per cent said they preferred family day care because of the home-like atmosphere and because there was only one caregiver. Twenty-four per cent indicated that family day care enabled them to fill gaps in arrangements and to cope with changes in their work and care arrangements. Twenty- three per cent mentioned convenience, 18 per cent said they had no choice and had not been able to get a preferred arrangement, and 13 per cent said family day care had a good reputation and had been recommended.

Sources of Information

The study found that mothers had heard about family day care through the local network and often from more than one source. More than half the mothers, 52 per cent, indicated that they had heard through a friend or neighbour and 46 per cent through the local council. Other sources of information were health and social services (16 per cent), and through a family day care worker (12 per cent).

Desirable Qualities

Mothers were asked what qualities they had looked for in the caregiver; they could indicate more than one. More than three-quarters (81 per cent) said they were looking for motherly carers, 46 per cent mentioned trained, professional and responsible carers, and 15 per cent said they were looking for someone with a similar child-rearing style. Other qualities mentioned were health factors, women who would meet the needs of the children, and a few mentioned seeking carers who would provide extra help.

These mothers were also asked what environmental qualities they looked for. Again, they could mention more than one. Almost three-quarters (71 per cent) were looking for a clean, safe environment. A little less than half (45 per cent) said that they were looking for good equipment and facilities, 38 per cent mentioned a happy and home-like atmosphere, and 28 per cent said a good program.

Advantages and Disadvantages

When asked about the advantages of family day care, 31 per cent of mothers who had used it referred to the appropriateness of this service and said that it met the needs of their child and was liked by their child. Thirty- one per cent referred to the advantages in the small numbers of children and the home-like atmosphere, and 25 per cent mentioned the convenience. Twenty-two per cent mentioned the good quality of the service and/or of the carers. Thirteen per cent said family day care filled a gap and/or met a need.

However, 24 per cent of mothers said there had been no advantages. For example, one mother said family day care was unreliable, while another complained that 'there were too many children and it was not convenient'. However, the latter mother said of a second caregiver with whom she was very satisfied that she lived in an area which was 'not convenient to my workplace'.

When asked about disadvantages, 59 per cent of mothers saw none. However, 35 per cent of these mothers reported that they at some time had been dissatisfied with or worried about the quality of the care or the carers. For example, one mother said: 'For the last six months before the child went to school, he didn't like going to family day care and made little comments about it.'

Fourteen per cent of mothers sometimes disliked the methods of discipline or behaviour management used by carers, and 14 per cent said they did not think family day care was good for children.

In an Ideal World...

Mothers were asked: 'If you had a choice, what do you think would be the ideal way of caring for the child in the study while you were in the paid workforce?' Responses give some indication of mothers' feelings about family day care vis-a- vis other forms of non-parental care. Just less than a third, 29 per cent, of those who had used family day care said the ideal was the care that they had actually used. However, this did not refer only to family day care as some of these mothers had used other forms of care as well. Nevertheless, it does indicate satisfaction with family day care. Eleven per cent of mothers stipulated family day care was their ideal form of non-parental care.

However, 60 per cent of the mothers who had used family day care saw some other form of care as the ideal. Of this 60 per cent, 15 per cent thought a relative was the ideal, 13 per cent mentioned work-based child care, 12 per cent preferred centre-based care, and just more than 11 per cent preferred care in their own home. For these mothers family day care had filled a need but was not considered their ideal form of child care. Nevertheless, family day care obviously had a place in their child care arrangements perhaps because of its flexibility and/or availability.

The following case studies give some idea of the nature of the relationship between the family day care provider, the mother and the child. The first mother has life very much under control, while the second is a single parent who initially was in very difficult circumstances but eventually became a family day care provider herself.


'Judith' teaches in a tertiary institution and her husband is a public servant in middle management. 'Jason', aged five at the time of the interview, is the youngest of two children and has an older sister aged seven. Judith took maternity leave for Jason's birth and returned to work part-time when he was three months old. He and his older sister were cared for in family day care. The qualities Judith looked for in the carer were warmth, skill, experience, and affection.

Judith had first heard about family day care from a neighbour and she chose this form of care for her children because she wanted them to be in family surroundings. She felt they got more attention and individual care. There were no disadvantages in family day care while Jason was very young but Judith felt the care provided was not suitable for older children. She did not have any trouble making the transfer to a creche at her workplace as she had booked both children in earlier. Nevertheless, she considers that the ideal way of caring for Jason would have been to employ a carer in her home.


'Angela' is a single mother whose husband left her for another woman two weeks after the birth of 'David'. She had taken maternity leave from her job as a computer programmer for the birth and returned to work full-time when the baby was 12 months old. Her main reason for returning to work was financial as she needed the money to pay off her house. David was cared for in family day care although Angela would have preferred a centre if there had been a place available. Angela was in a very emotional state over this period and found life difficult. She worked full- time for a couple of years until she collapsed one day on the way to work. This forced her to rethink her position and she changed to part-time work.

On the whole, Angela found family day care was satisfactory because of the availability of long hours of care which suited her better than a child care centre. Nevertheless, there were some disadvantages. She first heard about family day care when she applied for a place at a centre.

'We were supposed to be given three people, but there was only ever one at the time because of the shortage of day care mothers, but at the time the first one was OK,' Angela said. 'He (David) was there for a year, but I had trouble because he got this bad cough that turned out to be asthma, which I didn't understand at the time. It wasn't diagnosed as asthma and he was getting ordinary medicine.

'These people (the carer and her husband), while they were very nice at first, started carrying on. They thought I wasn't caring for him properly, particularly the husband. The wife wanted me to take him to a different doctor, and then finally they said they couldn't have him there. It was the way it was handled. The family day care mother herself didn't say anything. Her husband did and it was the way he said it. He stood at the sink with his hands on his hips and she just turned away. I felt so threatened.

'The next lady was really lovely while her husband was away he worked overseas and there was only the lady and her two children. It was just wonderful until her husband came home, then she started getting a lot of migraines. Lots of other things started to build up at that time; I was worried about the television being on a bit too long. It wasn't just one thing, there were lots of little niggly things and it finished up with one time when I went to pick up David and he wouldn't get in the car to go home.

'I've since found out through experience that a lot of it wasn't the family day care mum's fault at all, a lot of it was just things that happen. But it ended when one time I went to pick him up, he had this red mark all round his bottom. I don't know if he'd sat on the potty too long or whether he had this urine burn mark, but it was awful, and was there still the next day. I thought that's it, I don't want to send him back there.

'The third lady was wonderful, she lived on her own. There was no problem with husbands or sons or anything like that. She was wonderful with the children. She had children in and out all the time. She had emergency care children on weekends, and David made his best friends there. He had about a year with her before I started doing family day care.

'The only reason we left the third carer was because she was moving to another town; she was excellent. At the time there was a shortage of carers and by that time I was doing part-time work. I thought if there is a shortage of carers I'll be a family day care mother and that is what happened.'

Angela considers family day care is probably ideal for children if their mothers are working. However, she qualifies this statement: 'You've just got to make sure you've got the right person. As long as your child is happy it's probably better than the day care centres; it just depends on your child. Some might like a child care centre with a lot of children and activities all the time, others might prefer to follow a ''mum'' around.

'The only thing with family day care is you've got to look at whether the husband is there does he like the child being there when he comes home from work or are there other children who feel threatened by visiting children? It depends on the whole family situation. The children get more loving support than in a child care centre where they haven't got time to spend with individuals, giving cuddles, and things like that.'

A Personal Service

Mothers who use family day care know their children will be cared for in a family atmosphere. It is worth noting, however, that people can have very mixed feelings about families. The relationship between the carer, the child and the child's mother can be a very personal one and is likely to be affected by differences in values, attitudes and child rearing styles as well as by personality differences and/or particular incidents as happened in the case of Angela. Just as there can be ambivalent or mixed feelings about the family, there may also be some mixed feelings about family day care. Family day care is the most intimate and personal of the pre-school child care services, and mothers' satisfaction appears to rest very much on the personal relationship established between the caregiver, the child and the mother. However, when mothers who want their children cared for in a home-like atmosphere find the 'right' caregiver, family day care provides a very satisfactory arrangement. '


  • Brennan, D. and O'Donnell, C. (1986), Caring for Australia's Children: Political and Industrial Issues in Childcare, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
  • Petrie, A. (1990), Child Care in the '90s: Responding to Community Needs in Australia, National Utilisation Trends in Family Day Care, Griffith University, Brisbane.