Annual Report 2005‚Äď06

Use of formal and informal child care for infants

(Taken from Family Matters, edition 72, "What can the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children tell us about infants' and 4 to 5 year olds' experiences of early childhood education and care?" by Linda Harrison and Judy Ungerer.)

A common extra-familial experience shared by many Australian children is participation in early childhood education and care programs. In the infancy and toddler years, these range from formal, government-regulated centre- and home-based child care settings to various unregulated arrangements that include, for example, care by grandparents or friends. While Australian government policy and financial support for out-of-home child care has typically been regarded as a means of enabling parents to participate in the paid workforce or to support families at risk, there is also evidence to suggest that these services may impact on the development of children in different ways. Research studies indicate that good quality child care can provide support for children's learning, socialisation, and development and, in contrast, research also suggests that children in poor quality care may be exposed to some level of developmental risk.

Child care participation

Almost two-thirds of Growing Up in Australia infants (64 per cent) were not participating in regular non-parental care arrangements, indicating that exclusive regular care by parents is still the norm for most young Australian infants. For a considerable number of others, Australian parents are accessing a range of formal and informal care arrangements for their children, due primarily to their work or educational commitments, and their overall level of satisfaction with these arrangements is high.

Infants participated in a wide range of different formal and informal care arrangements. The majority of infants in care (59 per cent) were in informal care settings, while 30 per cent were in formal care arrangements and 11 per cent experienced a mix of both formal and informal care (Figure 17). Formal care arrangements are subject to state regulations specifying quality-related aspects of care, including staff-to-child ratios, staff training requirements, group size, health and safety standards. Long day care and Family Day Care services offering child care subsidies are also required to meet Commonwealth accreditation standards. Of the Growing Up in Australia infants in formal care, 22 per cent attended long day care centres, eight per cent were receiving family day care, and less than one per cent attended both long day care and Family Day Care.

Informal care arrangements were more varied than formal care. In most states, informal home-based care arrangements with four or fewer children are not subject to state government regulatory requirements specifying minimum standards of care quality, and it is likely that the quality of care in these settings is more variable than in formal care. For infants in informal care, the majority were cared for by close relatives. Grandparents were the sole providers of care for 37 per cent of these infants, and they contributed to the care of a further 13 per cent. While informal care providers were more likely to care for the child in a location other than the child's own home, the difference between the incidence of in-home and out-of-home care was not large (46 per cent versus 54 per cent, respectively).

The states and territories are responsible for the regulation and some funding of child care, so it might be expected that the use of formal versus informal care arrangements would vary by state or territory in accord with the type of regulations and the availability of services for infant care. The rates of attendance at informal versus formal care were similar to the national average for the most populous states of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia. However, for Queensland and the states and territories with smaller populations (Tasmania, Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory), attendance at formal care was more common. For example, in Queensland, 53 per cent of infants in care were in a formal care arrangement, while 47 per cent were in informal care only. While similar trends were observed for Tasmania, Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, the small numbers of children in the Growing Up in Australia sample in those locations suggests that the data should be interpreted with caution.

Figure 17 - Infants in child care: Relative proportion of infants in each care type by state/territory

The type of care used by parents was related to overall family income, with families using only formal care arrangements having higher yearly incomes, and those using only informal care having lower yearly incomes. Parents' overall satisfaction with child care was highest for grandparent care and lowest for long day care centres, though the difference between the two was minimal. Infants whose first care placement was informal care were likely to have started care at an earlier age but for less hours on average per week than infants whose first care placement was in a formal care setting.

Differences in the use of formal and informal care appear to be related to factors that are of interest from a policy perspective. The availability of choice in care may have significant consequences for children. Formal care programs provide care that must meet regulatory and accreditation requirements to enhance children's learning and development. The opportunities for children who are excluded from these care settings may be compromised and any inequalities resulting from economic disadvantage strengthened and perpetuated.

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