Demand for fulltime childcare for under-2s has reached crisis point, with kindergartens and daycare centres struggling for space as parents head back to work earlier.
Parents are trying to secure places for their children on waiting lists before they are even born, with waits of more than a year in high-demand early childhood education centres – particularly those that cater for very young children.
Last year, more than 34,000 children aged under 2 were enrolled in some type of early childhood education – an increase of 57 per cent on a decade earlier.
Traditional kindergartens have all but vanished in Wellington and parts of Auckland, where working parents want fulltime care.
Of the 62 kindergartens that belong to the Wellington Kindergarten Association, only five continue to offer "traditional" kindy hours of morning and afternoon sessions, as demand for hours to suit working parents has forced them to adapt.
Miramar North Kindergarten was forced to change its hours to fulltime this year after parents began removing their children in favour of centres that offered longer hours.
Demand had risen because parents were being forced back into work earlier, Wellington Kindergarten Association general manager Amanda Coulston said.
"There's a huge demand in places for babies and toddlers, children that are 2 and under, and there's just not the space.
"Families are desperate to get them in – you could probably build another 10 centres in Wellington for under-2s and you still wouldn't meet the demand. It's a really big issue, and it's not just in Wellington."
In Palmerston North, Puddleducks' Nursery and Preschool said it could not take any more under-2s until next year.
The lack of decent paid parental leave and the tighter economy meant many parents could not afford to stay at home with their babies any more, Ms Coulston said.
"It's a sad indictment on how things have become."
On Wellington's south coast, a favoured location for young families, waiting lists have stretched to unmanageable lengths.
Owhiro Bay Kindergarten, which offers daycare for under-2s, has a waiting list of 200. Parents can expect to wait up to a year.
Island Bay Kindergarten had a waiting list of more than 100 and dozens more parents were calling every week, head teacher Jane Horrax said.
Private childcare centres were also filling up quickly. Kakapo Kids in Hopper St, Wellington City, opened on January 24, and already had a six-month waiting list for under-2s, manager Jan Tromp said.
"There's a definite shortage of under-2 spaces, and it's a national trend. "
Competition was so intense that she had had one mother ask her to put her name on the list before her child had been born.
Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell said the increasing pressure on childcare centres had been driven by a higher birthrate and more parents returning to the workforce.
It was not unusual for parents to have to wait up to a year – and while new centres had been opening, they had been unable to keep up with demand.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said there had been a noticeable upsurge in childcare services nationwide, though it was more pronounced in cities such as Wellington and Auckland, where both parents had to work.
"It is very much a reflection of this Government's focus on getting people back into work. People need to get jobs at the moment, the economic climate being what it is."
Education Ministry group manager early childhood education Karl Le Quesne said that, although Wellington had above-average participation rates in early childhood education compared with the rest of New Zealand, waiting lists alone were not a good indication of demand.
Some parents put their children's names on waiting lists of several services, particularly those known to be of good quality, he said.
MEI-MEI'S SPOT SORTED AFTER A YEAR
It took more than a year, but Island Bay mum Michelle Wanwimolruk has finally found a childcare centre for daughter Mei-Mei.
Ms Wanwimolruk put her name down at Island Bay's Aubert Childcare Centre, among others, as soon as Mei-Mei was born a year and 10 months ago.
Five months ago she began ringing regularly to check if there was a place, and has finally secured a spot.
"I've been told she's got a space and she's starting in April," she said.
"We've been on the waiting list there for almost two years. I'm very happy she's in, and happy she is in a good-quality centre."
It was important for Ms Wanwimolruk that Mei-Mei was in a centre with fully qualified teachers, so she could be sure her daughter was getting the best care while she went back to work.
"There's a real shortage of childcare, but it's not just childcare I'm looking for, for me it's the quality of education. They are just learning so much and they need good-quality teachers.
"My concern with all these other centres that are opening up is they are all for profit, and I'm not sure about the quality of care. There is a lot of money to be made because there are so many waiting lists at the good places ..."
Who do you think won Key v Cunliffe's second debate?Related story: Leaders debate reveals more even contest