30/01/2013 12:46 GMT | Updated 01/04/2013 06:12 BST

The Case for 'Time Out' Childcare

Being a parent is hard. In fact, let's just be honest about it, it's really hard sometimes. We often don't admit it, except to our closest friends and family, but it's probably the most challenging part of our lives.

A recent survey by the NSPCC reported that in the first eight weeks after birth around three in five mothers felt isolated with no one to turn to, and two in five mothers even admitted to 'getting angry' with their baby. And this is before they've even started walking and talking!

Parents perform a vital service for society - they raise, nurture and inspire the next generation. A role which is still under appreciated. Current debates around childcare provision focus on costs and ratios, but an over-looked area is the role of childcare in giving parents a break from their demanding role, particularly at times of stress and crisis. It's time to fix that. Local authorities could and should consider setting up 'time out' childcare for isolated parents who don't have family or friends to turn to at times of crisis.

Being a parent is enjoyable and rewarding, but it is also demanding and can be tough at times, particularly if parents are experiencing other types of stress at work or at home. Most parents can call on friends and relatives to allow them to have an occasional break. In fact, research has found that 23 per cent of parents with pre-school children routinely use childcare for reasons relating to 'parental time.' Examples given for how this can be spent include domestic activities, socialising, or looking after other children.

The opportunity to have a break is critical at times of stress. If a parent is struggling, perhaps because they have recently lost their job or are having difficulties with their partner, they might decide to leave their child with someone they trust and take some time to plan for their future, as well as dealing with any logistics such as attending appointments and completing job applications. Flexible, ad-hoc childcare provided by professionals is limited in its availability and can be very expensive where it exists, so many parents rely on friends and family for childcare during a crisis.

However, research has found that 27 per cent of parents who did not use formal childcare had no informal carers available either, even for one off occasions. If parents are not able to take time out to deal with stressful situations early on, then matters could escalate to the point where they cause lasting problems in the family. In the worst cases, families may not be able to recover from a crisis on their own, resulting in a need for family support services later on.

Currently, support from government does not go far enough to help families in these situations, although public services would have to step in when things go wrong. Families with children who are three or four years old are entitled to fifteen hours of free childcare per week, and the government intends to extend this to the most disadvantaged families with two year old children in September. This is a welcome move, but this type of childcare is only available to a limited age range, at certain times of the day and by prior arrangement. Families with older or younger children, or who need one-off childcare support outside normal hours, will not be able to benefit from the scheme.

There is an urgent need to provide childcare support for all isolated families who are struggling. A way of doing this would be to provide 'time out' childcare - a safe place where parents can leave their children for an agreed length of time without booking a slot in advance. An important aspect of the service would be to help build parents' social networks, by informing parents about playgroups, family activities and other peer support available. It is important that families are able to trust the service, which would ideally be developed with the local community and be staffed predominantly by local volunteers. Children's Centres would be the ideal place to co-ordinate and run this volunteer programme - the public sector supporting society to look after itself.

The value of taking steps to support families before problems escalate is now widely recognised. At the NSPCC we support this kind of approach because it can prevent family circumstances deteriorating to the point when abuse or neglect is more likely to occur. It should make sense to cash-strapped local authorities too. With increasing numbers of children being taken into care, local commissioners need new ways to prevent family problems escalating. The provision of 'time out' childcare would be one such way, and would sit within an overall package of early intervention support.

By providing childcare to isolated families when they need it, parents can be supported to deal with family crises at the earliest stages, and can also receive advice on what other support might be available to help them. This will help families to nip emerging problems in the bud, long before support from family services is needed.