Lack of childcare vacancies across the Illawarra is at crisis point with most mothers forced to put their name down in early pregnancy as wait lists exceed two to three years.
The Mercury phoned 100 childcare and long daycare centres within a 70 kilometre radius of Wollongong, which, as of June 2023, had "vacancies" according to the government's StartingBlocks website. Centres that had "no vacancy" and family daycare centres were not included.
Of the contacted more than half had no vacancy whatsoever; only 11 had full vacancy (for five days) for all age groups; and one centre said more than 150 people already were on the waiting list.
Single mum Aimee Egan has struggled to find permanent days at a centre despite having her name down with multiple places when she was 12 weeks pregnant. Her son is now 15-months-old.
She said it was "by chance" she was able to secure two permanent days at the start of the year, but that wasn't enough to return to work so took drastic measures and transformed a room at her Corrimal hair salon into a play room and hired a nanny.
"It's so hard because you're like, 'is the cost it even worth me being at work', but then so many women I speak to [are in the same boat]," Miss Egan said.
"Do I give up my career and move backwards? Or do I like pay this cost and then go without and have that extra financial stress."
Private nannies don't usually qualify for government rebates, so to try and ease the financial load Miss Egan and a friend share the same nanny on occasion.
She said often when chatting about her son's care situation many other parents reveal they are also in desperate need of a nanny or otherwise to help with childcare.
Tanya Murray relocated from Penrith to Thirroul late last year to be closer to her mother who was diagnosed with cancer.
She has struggled to find available places, even "occasional care" (for casual days) for her two-year-old son, and said she has been on at least 50 different wait lists between Scarborough and Dapto.
"It's ridiculous ... I called one and they said there was a three-year wait-list, how is that even fair?" Ms Murray said.
"There's not enough educators, there's not enough centres - especially in the northern suburbs. I can probably count on two hands how many centres there are north of Wollongong."
Staff described their wait lists as "long" and "extensive", with one service saying this was the highest demand they'd ever seen for their service, especially in the 0-2 age bracket.
Many centres the Mercury called said vacancies may become available in January 2024 as older children start primary school, though some believed availability would take closer to 12 or 18 months after joining a wait list.
Staff described their wait lists as "long" and "extensive", with one service stating this was the highest demand they'd ever seen for their service, especially in the 0-2 age bracket.
One centre in south-west Sydney charged a non-refundable $100 application fee to parents looking to enrol.
Twenty-three per cent of services had one to four days of availability for children aged three and up, while 12 per cent had one to four days available for children of all ages.
Many centres offer less places for children under two than they do older kids, due to staffing ratios which tightens availability further.
The NSW government says 0-24 month-olds require one educator per four children and 24-36 month olds require one educator per 5 children, whereas toddler aged three-years and over can have one educator to ten children.
Meantime, one educator who started her own business as a Family Day Care had about 20 parents who all needed inquire straight away, all needing care as soon as possible, she said.
It's a common gripe for parents to put their name down at centres in early pregnancy, though they are still left waiting for spots beyond the time their children turn one.
Even then, many parents may only be able to get two days care with the onus on them to find more days if they want to return to work full-time.
"I didn't believe the hype of putting your child on wait lists prior to getting a positive pregnancy test, I can attest that craziness is in fact required. I thought two weeks old to start six months later would suffice, joke is on me," said Jacqueline Tolhurst.
Another parent said they moved interstate due to this issue.
"It's completely outrageous. Not sure how mums can focus on their careers whilst we have no one to care for the kids," said another mother.
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