According to research, four out of five children are cared for by a grandparent on a regular basis, one in four grandparents in the UK look after their grandchildren while the parents go out to work and 60% of childcare provision is by grandparents, saving the economy around £4 billion a year.
Many of these grandchildren are of pre-school age; many are children of one-parent families. All-day nursery care can easily cost £2,000 a term. Financial realities mean that many, perhaps most, young mothers have to go out to work. In the virtual absence of affordable nurseries and of creches at the workplace, asking the grandmother to look after the child or children is often the only option. And many grandparents feel they, too, have no option but to offer to do the childcare, full or part time.
If you are such a grandmother - or grandfather - looking after a grandchild does not mean you have to be trapped at home all day with t child. Most areas have playgroups and toddler groups, nursery-rhyme music groups, toy libraries and the like, meeting in church halls or similar venues.
These places will have lots of toys to play with, and, just as valuable for a lone pre-school child, lots of other toddlers to play with as well. At such places the carer accompanies the child, and the word 'carer' includes grandparents as well as parents, nannies, au pairs and child-minders. They are also useful places to meet others in a similar position. Local notice-boards, shop windows, libraries and newspapers should help identify where they are. Even some mother and baby groups welcome grandmothers and babies - one can but try.
The Grandparents' Association
But many grandparents feel out of place among young mums. The Grandparents' Association is the fastest-growing group in the country for grandparents. It offers help and advice, and in some parts of the country has set up 'Grandparent and Toddler' groups, to cater specifically for the age range. Again, they can offer toys, company, networking, and support - see www.grandparents-association.org.uk.
They also help those who are looking after grandchildren full-time for absent or incapable parents, and offer mediation for those having problems over access to grandchildren - their advice line is 0845 434 9585.
If you are uncertain what stage of development your grandchild, - say a two-year-old toddler - should be at, or what toys and games are appropriate, Parentline Plus gives parenting advice, on everything from child aggression to nutrition to discipline - and of course they'll give it to grandparents as well as to parents. They are on www.parentlineplus.org.uk,. They have a confidential e-mail support service as well, manned by volunteers who try to reply within three working days - or if your problem is more urgent, telephone their 24-hour helpline on 0808 800 2222. Their postal address is: Parentline Plus, 520 Highgate Studios, 53-79 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London, NW5 1TL
Getting paid to look after grandchildren
The state offers grandparents few resources when it comes to childcare. It assumes that grandparents are always retired and care for grandchildren as a normal part of family life. If the employer or college of the child's parents contributes to childcare costs, they may insist that the child is placed with a registered childcarer.
If this is the case there is no reason why the grandparent should not apply to become registered, and thus eligible for the payment. The process takes about three months, and involves a criminal record check, an Ofsted inspection of your home, and short courses in childminding and children's first-aid. The National Childminding Association has details ( www.ncma.org.uk ) and a downloadable booklet on how to start.