Accessible, affordable, and quality childcare helps parents return to work after parental leave, improves children’s social and cognitive development, and promotes a more gender equitable society. Yet, despite its many benefits, UNICEF Innocenti's report reveals that childcare is inaccessible to many parents in the world's richest countries.
Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare? ranks high-income countries based on their national childcare and parental leave policies. The best-performing countries combine affordability with quality of organized childcare while offering long and well-paid leave to both mothers and fathers.
Leave: paid job-protected leave available to mothers and fathers in full-pay equivalent
Access: Children in formal childcare and education programmes (under 3 and one year before starting school)
Quality: Children-to-teacher ratio and minimal qualifications to become a teacher in formal childcare
Affordability: Cost of childcare for two children (two earners on average wage and a single parent of low earnings)
Note: A yellow background indicates a place in the top third of the ranking, pinkdenotes the middle third, and purple the bottom third. The blank cells indicate that there are no up-to-date comparable data available. The exact values and sources of all indicators are shown in the Appendix of the report.
Luxemburg, Iceland, and Sweden offer the best childcare policies.However, no country is a leader on all four fronts, suggesting there is room for improvement, even among the more family-friendly countries.
Slovakia, the United States, and Cyprus occupy the bottom places of the League Table. Weak investments in leave and childcare suggest that childcare is seen more as a private responsibility.
Japan, Romania, Estonia, and the Republic of Korea rank highest on leave entitlements. Romania and Estonia have the longest leave available for mothers, while Japan and Korea have the longest leave for fathers.
Iceland, Latvia, and New Zealand have the highest quality of childcare, meaning a low children-to-staff ratio with high qualifications of caregivers.
Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland have the least affordable childcare for the middle class. Two earners of average wage would need to spend up to half of one salary to pay for two children in childcare.
Countries with high rates of satisfaction with childcare tend to have high enrolment and few parents struggling with childcare cost.
The end of paid leave usually does not coincide with the start of entitlements to affordable childcare, leaving many families with young children struggling to fill this gap.
Most young children are cared for by their parents, whether leave policies and care options are available or not. Well-designed maternity, paternity, and parental leave can help parents bond with their babies, supports healthy child development, lowers maternal depression, and increases gender equality.
Maternity leave helps mothers prepare for the birth of the child, recover from pregnancy and childbirth, breastfeed, and bond with their child. Well-paid, job-protected leave from work helps mothers maintain their income and position in the labour market.
Maternity leave tends to be short and well-paid, averaging 19 weeks across the rich countries and paid at 77 per cent of the national average wage. Parental leave (often taken by women) tends to be long and paid at a lower rate, averaging 36 weeks paid at 36 per cent of the average wage.
Over the last 50 years, maternity leave has been substantially extended, from an average of 17 weeks in the 1970s to 51 weeks in 2018.
Leave reserved for fathers helps them bond with their children and supports the redistribution of childcare between mothers and fathers, yet it makes up only one tenth of total leave. Paternity leave tends to be substantially shorter than maternity leave (usually 1–2 weeks) but is paid at a higher rate.
That being said, paternity leave policies are constantly being improved. In the 1970's it was practically unheard of but by 2018, 35 countries had paternity leave, including eight countries with over three months paternity leave.
The biggest barrier is take-up as working fathers typically face professional and cultural barriers that prevent them from using leave. In 11 countries with comparable data, take-up averages 55 per cent. To encourage uptake, almost all rich countries have introduced ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ paternity leave.
Full Pay Equivalent
Length of leave can be a misleading indicator of policy quality because it is paid at varying rates. Full-pay equivalents show the generosity of the entitlement by multiplying weeks of leave by the payment rate. Across rich countries, an average woman needs to be paid two thirds of her earnings during maternity and parental leave.
When calculated in this way, the most generous leave for mothers is offered by Romania (92 weeks of full pay), Estonia (84 weeks), and Bulgaria (70 weeks). At the other end of the scale, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland offer less than 10 weeks of full pay.
High quality childcare benefits children in multiple ways. Interactions with other children foster cognitive and social-emotional skills. Access to early caring and educational experiences outside the home can have an equalizing effect on children’s development and life chances, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Good childcare is accessible, affordable, equitable and high quality.
While all rich countries with available data provide free childcare, in many countries this entitlement does not begin until three years of age or later. Only Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway, and Slovenia provide free access for children under three. In most countries, free childcare is only sufficient for parents who work part-time.
To supplement this gap in childcare, many parents enroll children at their own expense. In high-income households, 48 per cent of children under three attend early child education and care compared to 30 per cent for low-income households. For children aged between three and five, enrolment increases while the income gap narrows.
This study measures the quality of childcare using the children-to-staff ratio and caregivers’ qualifications.Low ratios mean every child can get enough attention from the caregiver. In rich countries, a preschool caregiver looks
after an average of 14 children – almost twice as many as in programmes for
children under 3. The ratio ranges from 5 children per teacher in Iceland to 24 children per teacher in Mexico.
Minimal qualifications for caregivers are usually lower for children under three, whereas those working with older children require at least a BA diploma. Public perception of childcare work matters as it influences who applies and stays in the profession, which has a large impact on quality of childcare.
When childcare is expensive, socioeconomic inequalities are accentuated and women are deterred from returning to work. Among parents who used organised childcare in Europe, 38 per cent found its cost difficult to cover. Another 15 per cent would like to use day care but cannot do so, with affordability being the main obstacle, especially for low-income families.
Across all rich countries, a couple earning average wages would need to spend 14 per cent of one wage to keep two children in childcare. This expense ranges from zero in countries with free childcare (such as Chile, Malta, and Italy) to up to half of one wage in Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland.
While most rich countries heavily subsidize childcare for disadvantaged groups, in the United States, Cyprus, and Slovakia, a parent with low earnings needs to spend up to half of their salary on childcare. Recently, many countries are changing their childcare policies to make them more affordable and accessible.
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged children’s education, care, and well-being as parents struggled to balance their responsibilities for childcare and employment. Lockdowns closed childcare centres and made informal providers unavailable, such as grandparents.
Much of the childcare burden was placed on women. In the US, women’s labour participation hit a 33-year low in January 2021, with a third of women who left work quoting childcare problems as the reason.
While rich countries have mobilized a historic amount of funding to offset the effects of COVID-19, only 2 per cent of this was earmarked for child-specific social policies, and an even smaller fraction was reserved for childcare. Childcare policies introduced include childcare benefits, paid leave, and simplified procedures to access childcare benefits. For example, the United States introduced the first federally mandated paid parental leave to workers whose children’s schools and daycare centres had closed.
Provide a suitable mix of paid maternity, paternity, and parental leave for mothers and fathers.
Leave should be both gender-sensitive and gender-equitable to ensure neither parent is overburdened with home care.
Leave should be inclusive and granted to those in non-standard forms of employment or training.
Align the end of leave with availability of childcare to ensure there are no gaps in childcare support.
Make accessible, flexible, and affordable quality childcare available to all parents.
Publicly provided childcare can facilitate access for low-income families.
Invest in the childcare workforce to encourage the highest possible standards.
Encourage employers to support working parents through paid leave entitlements, flexible work arrangements, and childcare support systems.
Provide leave policies and childcare services with family policies (e.g. child benefits) to reduce the risk of social inequalities being replicated in public childcare settings.