Cheap or free childcare is the holy grail for many parents.
Despite 30 free hours for three-year-olds, tax-free benefits and flexible working, most families still struggle to find cost-effective childcare. So what options are out there, and is technology opening new possibilities?
A report last year revealed that the cost of childcare in the school holidays rose four times faster than wages between 2008 and 2016 – so, despite the funding options available, parents are always on the lookout to find alternative safe childcare options that could cut costs. 
Writer and PR guru Lottie Daley is mum to three girls aged six months, four and six years old. Over the years, she has relied on babysitting circles to help her look after her girls.
‘I suppose it’s a form of crowdsourcing: finding a group of friends, with kids of similar ages, who you like and trust to help care for each others’ kids,’ she explains. ‘If you form a strong, tight-knit group, you are able to use it ad-hoc or regularly.’
Some babysitting circles operate a ‘points system’ depending on the number of hours you babysit to keep a tally, while a growing number of friends use apps to organise a timetable.
For parents interested in forming a group of trusted friends, try downloading Sitster, an app for your mobile which organises friends to make it quick and easy to find out who is available and who can help.
For longer childcare solutions, try network company Student Nannies, set up by working parents, for working parents. Student Nannies connects local students and families to offer term time and school holiday cover. They are not a nanny agency, but help parents find a match and don’t charge commission.‘We set this up as there is a real need for flexible, affordable options for parents,’ reveals Mum Tracey Blake, founder of Student Nannies (@studentnannies). ‘I only needed an hour or two extra childcare a day after school and couldn’t find anything.
Mum Emma Bradley (@MoneyWhisperer_), who runs The Money Whisperer personal finance and family blog, says there are many ways to save.
‘With 14 weeks of school holidays and most parents getting six weeks’ maximum annual leave there is usually a gap to fill,’ she explains. ‘First of all, there is the tax-free childcare scheme where the government pays £2 for every £8 paid to the childcare provider via an online account – up to £500 saved per quarter.’
Emma also points out that parents are entitled to unpaid parental leave of 18 weeks per child if you have one year’s service with a company.
‘This might offer a solution for some families,’ says Emma. ‘You don’t have to take the leave all at once.’
 Trades Union Congress (TUC). Cost of childcare has risen four times faster than wages since 2008, Figures from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the Family and Childcare Trust (FCT), https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/cost-childcare-has-risen-four-times-faster-wages-2008-says-tuc
 Tom Huskinson, Sylvie Hobden, Dominic Oliver, Jennifer Keyes, Mandy Littlewood, Julia Pye, and Sarah Tipping, 2016. Childcare and early years survey of parents: 2014 to 2015. GOV.UK, Department for Education https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/516924/SFR09-2016_Childcare_and_Early_Years_Parents_Survey_2014-15_report.pdf.pdf