The ups and downs of looking after your grandchildren

New findings from parenting website reveal that half of parents outsource some childcare to grandparents to ease the pressures of everyday life. Further findings from the site show that eight in 10 grandparents take care of grandchildren on a weekly basis.

Research from the charity Grandparents Plus also demonstrates that grandparents are a vital source of help. Its figures show that seven million children receive some level of care from their grandparents.

Separate research from insurer Rias reveals that the 9.2 million-strong ‘grandparent army’ (up from 6.1 million in 2009) saves parents £15.7 billion each year in childcare costs, equivalent to almost £1,700 per family.

“The number of hours grandparents put into childcare and the money saved in childcare costs both run into billions,” says Mervyn Kohler, special adviser at Age UK. “The government wants more people of working age in employment, plus there is financial pressure on parents to go back to work, as families need the extra income. At the same time, the cost of childcare isn’t getting any cheaper.”

In fact, figures from the Family and Childcare Trust show that average childcare costs for a child under two increased by 20% between 2011 and 2016, a period in which wages grew by just 7.3%.

The cost of sending a child aged under two to nursery part-time (25 hours) now stands at £115.45 a week, or £6,003 a year.

Rocketing costs are prompting more and more parents to send their children to ‘granny daycare’ instead.

“As dual-earning couples become more common at a time when the cost of childcare is vastly outstripping pay growth, families are increasingly turning to grandparents for informal childcare,” says David Finch, senior policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation. “Grandparent care is one of the clearest examples of the social contract that binds generations together.”

Equally, many grandparent childminders put their family first and opt to reduce their hours or retire earlier than planned to help the younger generation do their jobs without incurring childcare costs.

“Grandparents are making a huge contribution to families, society and the economy,” says Dr Lucy Peake from Grandparents Plus. “We want to make sure grandparents are recognised for the vital role they play in caring for children, whether that is a few hours a week of after-school care or taking on a full-time caring role.”


Daycare downside

While, in general, grandparents are more than willing to help out, the vast majority receive no payment to cover the cost of looking after little ones.

And even though few grandparents want anything in exchange, providing this free childcare does have an impact on the older generation’s finances, as many shell out hefty sums each year for activities, food, drink and treats.

In fact, findings from the Centre for the Modern Family, a thinktank set up by Scottish Widows, show that 26% of grandparent carers say their childcare responsibilities have had a negative impact on their finances.

Another concern is that while the majority of grandparents love spending time with their grandchildren, for some it can be strenuous and for others it can feel like a job.

“Young children can be very tiring and can soon wear out older family members,” says Mr Kohler. “Some grandparents can find themselves in a difficult situation where childcare feels like a duty.”

This is particularly likely to be the case where the older generation is in demand to help out their children with other chores, such as shopping, washing and DIY around the home.

Research from the Centre for the Modern Family found that 15% of grandparent child carers say their responsibilities have had a negative impact on their personal wellbeing, and 21% say they have been detrimental to their social life.

“It is important to consider the impact of this role both emotionally and financially,” says Jackie Leiper, retirement expert at Scottish Widows and panellist for the Centre for the Modern Family. “Our research shows grandparent child carers are being disproportionately squeezed financially in comparison to other demographics. Almost one in three say they have spent their savings just to keep up with day-to-day spending.

“Asking grandparents to babysit can be a good way to save the pennies – and allow the family to spend more time together – but it is important that the generations are mindful of supporting not just those below them but those above them as well.”


Plenty of upside

While there can be a downside to grandparents’ help, involving them in childcare can be extremely positive for both children and the older generation.

“It is especially beneficial where grandparents and grandchildren enjoy things together,” says Dr Peake. “For example, if they are both into fishing or baking, doing that activity together enhances wellbeing for both sides and fosters strong long-term bonds.”

Mr Kohler agrees. “If grandparents get the role right, they will get a great deal of appreciation and affection from the younger generation,” he says. 

Working arrangement

“We advise parents and grandparents to talk about what feels right and manageable,” says Dr Peake. “For some, that will be a few hours or days a week. For others, it will involve having the grandchildren for a week in the summer holidays.”

The key is to ensure a grandparent doesn’t end up feeling like an unpaid nanny. “This can be quite tricky,” adds Dr Peake. “Looking after children should be a joy, not a duty. Grandparents should make sure they commit to what they can do and acknowledge their limits.”

It’s important to talk about practical issues, such as how children are expected to behave at mealtimes before starting any childcare arrangement. “Having this discussion will be a good way to establish ground rules,” says Dr Peake. “Many parents and grandparents worry about whose rules should apply when granny or granddad is looking after the children.”

Attitudes can change somewhat from one generation to the next. “Bringing up a child now is very different from the way it was 60 years ago,” says Mr Kohler.

“While there’s no need for written contracts, it’s worth agreeing on what commitment the grandparents are happy to provide,” he adds. “Parents also need to appreciate that grandparents need their own private lives and some respite. At the same time, grandparents and parents also need to agree on who will cover any expenses incurred while grandchildren are being cared for.”

Equally, with more people likely to find themselves providing granny daycare, based on current trends, Mr Kohler urges the older generation to plan ahead. “That way, you will not be rushed into it and left stuck in an undesirable arrangement,” he adds.

Support for grandparents

There are signs that the government has recognised the potential consequences of the rising retirement age and parents’ reliance on grandparents for childcare. In October 2015, George Osborne, the then chancellor, announced a plan to consult on an extension of shared parental leave, with the aim of implementing the policy by 2018.

The scheme would allow new parents to share their leave with working grandparents – as well as their partners. The proposals aim to give grandparents the flexibility to take time off work to help care for newborn grandchildren, thereby helping families to keep childcare costs down.

The consultation signals that the government recognises there is a need for creative thinking around childcare for working families. In March this year, Santander became the first major employer to give working grandparents the right to take shared parental leave in a child’s first year.

“While we welcome these developments, we know many working families rely on grandparents for childcare when they go back to work and while children are growing up,” says Dr Peake.

“We want to see an extension of grandparents’ rights to flexible working and time off as grandchildren grow up. This would make a huge difference to families, and enable both parents and grandparents to balance work and caring responsibilities.” 

“Looking after the grandchildren keeps me young”

Helen Jackson, 77, from Sheffield (pictured above), has provided ongoing support to her son and daughter over the past two decades by helping with childcare.

Helen’s daughter, who lives in the north-east, has three boys aged between 13 and 19. Her son lives just a few miles away. He has three boys and a girl, aged between seven and 15.

“There were times in the past when I had six little boys to look after all at once – before my granddaughter came along,” says Helen, a retired teacher.

“That was hard work, but great fun.” In recent years, Helen has been a vital source of help for her son and daughter-in-law.

“My son has a busy job in medicine,” she says. “And while my daughter-in-law ended up giving up work after their third child, she then went on to do a full-time degree, so my childcare services were essential.”

While all of the grandchildren are a bit older now, Helen continues to help out on a weekly basis by doing the after-school pick-ups on a Monday.

“The key to making this arrangement work is planning ahead,” she says. “That said, I’m also happy for my children to call on me if one of the grandchildren falls ill.”

Helen also steps up during the school holidays. “When the schools break up, I’m a very necessary part of the childcare arrangements,” she says. “And I like being necessary, as I enjoy this set-up just as much as my children and grandchildren do.

“By caring for the grandchildren on a weekly basis, as well as in the holidays, I can make a big difference to my children’s lives, as this allows them to work – and to make the family finances work.

“It is a big commitment, but as I’m retired, I’m happy to help. I love keeping the grandchildren occupied, plus it keeps me young.”

“It’s nice to have one-on-one time with my grandson”

Ann Mason, from Dorset (pictured above), plays an active part in her grandchildren’s lives by helping out with the school run a few days each week and babysitting when needed.

The 75-year-old retiree lives close to her daughter, Lucy, 36, and enjoys being heavily involved with her two grandchildren, Hudson, aged five, and Heath, two. “Lucy works full-time and often has to travel with her job,” says Ann. “Each week I pick Hudson up from school, bring him home and give him his dinner. It’s nice to have one-on-one time with him while Heath is at nursery.

“When Lucy just had Hudson, I looked after him every Wednesday, and we had a great time together going for walks and spending time at the beach.

“When Heath came along, we decided I would help with babysitting so Lucy and her husband could enjoy dinner out and time with their friends without having to worry about getting home at a certain time.

“When Hudson began school, I started doing a weekly pick-up, which has been a big help to Lucy. It’s no trouble for me, as it means I get quality time with him.

“My involvement saves Lucy a lot of money in childcare, as after-school club fees can soon mount up. This makes a big difference at a time when she is paying a lot in nursery bills for Heath.

“Lucy and I have always set aside time to talk through the childcare arrangements to ensure we are both happy with everything. We also review things regularly to check the set-up is still working well for both of us.”

How Moneywise team members benefit from granny daycare

Editor Moira O'Neill says: “Every year, my two daughters spend several weeks of the school holidays with their grandparents. My mum and dad look forward to these special times and are happy to spend money on feeding and entertaining their granddaughters. However, I do worry that it is a huge responsibility and potentially very tiring for them. I always emphasise that we could put other childcare in place if they feel it is too much of a burden, but until now they have been adamant that they want to help out as much as possible while they are still in good health. I’m very lucky.”

Special projects editor Rachel Lacey says: 

“My mum picks my two boys up from school once a week, plays with them, helps with homework and cooks them their tea before I get back from the office.

“Although it does save me the cost of sending them to an after-school club, the real benefit is the flexibility – she’s usually happy to help if I need to work on a different day or do an extra day or two if I’m busy at work. She will also come over if one of the boys is off school sick and I am working.

Over the years, she has also saved us a fortune in babysitting costs, and we get to go out a lot more often than those who don’t have parents living locally. It does require planning ahead and lots of communication to make the arrangement work for both us, but we’re close, so that’s easily done.

“When mum has helped us out a lot or had to rearrange her own plans, I do worry we’re taking advantage – but I hope I make it up to her in other ways and I always make sure she knows how grateful we are.”

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