Can I get help with childcare costs? Expert tips for struggling parents

If you need help with childcare costs there are multiple schemes that you can take advantage of to ease the pressure on your finances

nursery worker watching children as they play with blocks and build structures at nursery
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re contemplating returning to work after having a baby, you might need help with childcare costs. 

The average cost of childcare is soaring, meaning the cost of raising a child is becoming increasingly expensive. And with household bills also rising, parents need all the help they can get to alleviate worries about how much nursery, or other childcare options, such as wrap around care might cost. 

Fortunately, thanks to changes announced in the Spring Budget, the 30 hours free childcare scheme, which is currently available to those with children aged three to four, is being extended to all eligible parents with children over nine months old. However, the changes are being introduced in stages, which means it’s crucial to fully understand what help you could be entitled to both now and in the future.

Community manager at childminder agency tiney, Lisa Holmes, told us: “Parents feeling the pinch should make sure they’re taking advantage of the various schemes accessible to most that are intended to lift some of the strain.” 

Do I qualify for help with childcare costs?  

Whether you qualify for help with childcare costs will depend on your personal and financial situation. There are different options for different scenarios. Some of these are outlined below: 

Tax-free childcare

You can usually get tax-free childcare if you are in work and you earn less than £100,000, and your child is aged 11 or under. 

You might also qualify if: 

  • You are on sick leave or annual leave
  • You are on shared parental, maternity, paternity or adoption leave
  • You are not working but your partner is and you receive certain benefits, including incapacity benefit or carer's allowance.

You’ll need to sign up for the scheme online and for every £8 you pay into your account, the government will pay in £2 to use to pay your childcare provider.

Finance expert Janine Marsh, who runs the Thrifty Family blog, says: “These government contributions are limited to £500 every three months, per child, or £1,000 every three months, per disabled child. You are also required to contribute to your account every three months to receive the maximum contribution in the scheme.” 

Gemma, mum-of-one, who uses this scheme, says: “We use the tax-free childcare scheme to help with childcare costs. We pay £500 a month into our online account and receive £125 a month from the government. We then use this to help pay for our childminder costs which are around £600 a month. 

“We chose to use a childminder as we were able to select the hours suited to us as well as term-time-only childcare, unlike a private day nursery where we would pay for a whole day (8am-6pm) and during the school holidays. The government top up has made a big difference to our childcare costs, however they still make a big dent in our budget each month.”

children sitting on the floor while nursery worker holds up a graphic to teach them about planets

(Image credit: Getty Images)

30 hours free childcare

Currently, parents of three- and four-year-olds get up to 30 hours free childcare per week, provided you and your partner are in paid work and each earn less than £100,000 annually.

Head of money at smart money app Plum, Rajan Lakhani, says: “It’s worth noting that these free hours are term-time only and do not cover a full time working week, so parents that work long hours will still need to pay for the hours not covered by the scheme. And not all childcare providers offer free hours, so you will need to check with them before you sign your child up.” 

The scheme is being extended to all eligible parents with children over nine months old, but this won’t be fully in place until September 2025.

15 hours free childcare

All families with children aged three and four can access 15 hours of free childcare a week. If you claim benefits such as income support or universal credit, you might be able to claim 15 hours of free childcare for your two-year-old. 

As part of the changes announced in the Spring Budget, from April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will also be able to take advantage of this scheme, while it will apply to those with children aged nine months to three years from September 2024. 

Child Benefit

Child benefit is a payment from the government to help families with the cost of raising children. The weekly payment is going up on 10 April so from that point you will receive £24 per week for your first child and £15.90 per week for any subsequent children. You’ll need to claim online. 

Laura, mum of 14-month twins, utilises a couple of schemes to help with childcare. She says: “I went back to work (part-time) in January and paying childcare costs for two children in one go has certainly been a shock to the bank balance. 

"We currently claim Child Benefit and we use the tax-free childcare scheme, so that helps. But we’re paying around £700 a month for childcare two days a week, so it’s still a lot. It’ll be easier next April when we can start claiming 15 hours of free childcare, and then again when we can claim the full 30 hours.” 

Claim back childcare costs

Parents can claim up to 85% of their childcare costs if they get universal credit. The maximum amount a month is £646.35 for one child or £1,108.04 for two or more children. This is rising to £951 and £1,630 respectively, in the summer. You can find out more about how much Universal Credit pays towards childcare in our handy guide.  

What’s the maximum amount I could get to help with childcare costs? 

The maximum amount you can get to help with childcare costs will depend on your income status and which schemes you qualify for.

Childcare expert Lisa Holmes explains: “Some of the pathways mentioned above are mutually exclusive, but others are not. For example, you cannot claim tax-free childcare and universal credit at the same time, but you may use your eligible free childcare hours regardless of whatever other help you are accessing.” 

If you’re claiming universal credit: 

  • You can claim up to 85% of your childcare costs (£7,756.20 a year for one child)
  • You’ll also qualify for child benefit (£1,248 a year for your first child)
  • You can claim up to 30 free hours of childcare, provided you qualify.

nursery worker providing childcare for children

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you don’t get universal credit: 

  • You could qualify for tax-free childcare (up to £2,000 a year)
  • You’ll be able to claim child benefit (£1,248 a year for your first child)
  • Depending on your situation, you could also claim up to 30 free hours of childcare at the same time.

What’s the income threshold for help with childcare costs? 

The income threshold will depend on the scheme you are applying for. For both the tax-free childcare scheme and the 30 hours of free childcare, you and your partner must not earn more than £100,000 annually. 

For the tax-free childcare scheme, you must earn at least £152 a week, while for the 30 free hours childcare, you must earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours a week at National Living Wage. 

Child benefit works a little differently. If one parent earns more than £50,000, some of the child benefit has to be paid back. You repay 1% of your benefit for every extra £100 you earn over the threshold, and if one parent earns £60,000 or more, it must all be repaid.

Can I get more help with childcare costs if I am a single parent? 

Unfortunately there’s currently no additional help with childcare costs if you’re a single parent. However, you might be able to benefit from other support with your household bills, such as the single person council tax discount.  

Rachel Wait
Personal finance expert

Mum of two, Rachel is a freelance personal finance journalist who has been writing about everything from mortgages to car insurance for over a decade. Having previously worked at Shares Magazine, where she specialised in small-cap stocks, Rachel developed a passion for consumer finance and saving money when she moved to She later spent more than 8 years as an editor at price comparison site MoneySuperMarket, often acting as spokesperson. Rachel went freelance in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and has since written for numerous websites and national newspapers, including The Mail on Sunday, The Observer, The Sun and Forbes. She is passionate about helping families become more confident with their finances, giving them the tools they need to take control of their money and make savings. In her spare time, Rachel is a keen traveller and baker.