Grandparents are often the first port of call. According to research carried out by Loughborough University in 2011, 1 in 4 children under the age of 14 is cared for during term time by a grandparent. Other research puts the figure much higher at 6 out of 10 children having some sort of care by a grandparent. Most of this care is under 10 hours a week for older children.
But what about school holidays? Even if a grandparent is happy to childmind for a couple of days a week, or an hour after school each day, is it reasonable to expect them to take on the role full time – and not be paid? Why should grandparents offer free childminding?
The Government recognises the importance of grandparents providing care; it is estimated that care provided by grandparents saves the Government £4 billion.
Hollie relies heavily on her mum for childcare. "It helps that she lives next door! She's looked after my daughter for 10 years - primarily so I can continue working. Before my children went to school she'd look after them sometimes three days a week from 9am to around 3pm.
"During school holidays I would have been totally lost without her; I used paid childcare as well, but my income is erratic and I couldn't afford to pay for more than one day a week at nursery."
Did Hollie's mum not expect payment? "I never offered - but she told me quite early on that she didn't want payment."
But given that the average age of becoming a grandparent is 49, aren't grandparents busy with their own careers, having a gap year, or learning to scuba dive in the Maldives? Do any of them resent, or even refuse, to offer unpaid regular childcare?
Jane does. "I changed careers after a divorce when I was 46. I went into nursing which was very demanding. I work three days a week. I see my time off work as my time, to try and rebuild my social life. I've three children of my own, put my career on hold for them, and there was no way that I was going to be tied to looking after my grandchildren week after week.
"I'd be happy to help out now and then, but not on a regular basis. Some people may not approve, but I am still rebuilding my own life. I have a new partner now although we are not living together, and I don't want to feel he has to be involved with my grandchildren just yet."
Liz has two sons aged 10 and 12. Her elderly parents will help out - but they will only take one child at a time.
"Both sets of our children's grandparents are well beyond retirement age. In theory, it should be easy for them to look after them, especially as they are local. But none of the grandparents want both children together for more than a few hours, so childcare over the summer holidays is limited to one at a time, unless both sets of grandparents are available at the same time and we can split the children."
Is this disappointing?
"Yes, before we had the children we guessed the grandparents would choose to have the children on a regular basis. Our parents have 'been there, done that' and prefer to only have the children for short bursts on a far less regular basis."
Both Liz and her husband work from home - which means her occasionally boisterous boys cannot be there when she has clients in the home. Does she not resent this lack of involvement by the grandparents? And would paying them make any difference to how they feel?
"I don't feel there should be any pressure for grandparents to provide childcare, and if regular childcare is needed, offering some form of payment - perhaps things such as invitations to come for meals, or take them shopping, seems very appropriate. And if I am ever a grandparent I may feel the same as them."
Chris looks after her grandchildren occasionally - due to living some distance away. "I would not expect payment for one or two days a week, but it might be different if it were four or five. I am self-employed and if I had more involvement it would prevent me from taking on more work - so payment may be an issue.
"We plan to move closer to them, and it's an issue I may have to think about. In any case, I feel strongly that grandparents' help should not be taken for granted - grandparents should be cherished if they are being used as unpaid childminders."
Harriet's mum looks after her young grandson occasionally. "My mum does some childcare for me in the afternoons as she prefers to work in the mornings. Most of my friends use their parents maybe one day a week and there is no question of payment. I try to fit around this as I would not want her to put her career on hold in any way. I think this is an issue that parents need to consider."
So do any grandparents expect payment? Is it really fair that so many grandparents are being used for free childcare and having their own social lives or careers put on hold?
Stephanie is paid by her daughter. "My daughter wanted to increase her work to four days a week from two. I was happy to help out - I have my two grandsons after school for an hour, and most of the school holidays as their other grandparents live too far away. But in order to do this I had to reduce my own hours at work.
"I enjoy seeing my grandsons but I also need an income. I told my daughter that I could only childmind during the holidays if she paid me to make up for what I was losing by giving up my own work. She pays me £30 for the day which goes some way to covering the extra food I have to buy for two growing boys."
Is Stephanie right to do this? Do we expect too much of grandparents, and should we be offering to pay them for their time, especially if they have busy lives of their own?
Tell us what you think and your own experiences, especially in the summer holidays.
More on Parentdish:
Gran's in charge! How to make grandparent childcare work for everyone
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