Childcare waitlists explained


  • Be the squeaky wheel!
  • If you’re able to be flexible with days of care, that may help you get a spot
  • Make sure the centre knows what your current care requirements are

In some parts of Sydney there simply isn’t enough high-quality care to go around. This means that many families are on waitlists for care, juggling multiple alternative arrangements in the interim so that they can manage work commitments, creating a major source of household stress.

They say that knowledge is power, so brace yourself for some industry knowledge about childcare supply and waitlist management…

Why is there not enough care?

There is a range of complex reasons for the lack of childcare in some parts of Sydney, but some of those causes include:

  • Planning restrictions: A lack of space for centres set aside in the master planning for new developments.
  • Zoning restrictions: Council wards are divided into areas with different zoning allocated to control what/how certain plots of land are used. So zoning may influence the number of centres in the area.
  • A shortage of adequately-sized land: The regulations stipulate that children require a minimum of 10.25m2 of indoor and outdoor space each. Once you add in back of house requirements (kitchen, staff room, office, storage etc) and parking, you need quite a decent-sized lot to build a centre.
  • High rents: It’s rare that an operator owns the freehold for the centre, meaning that most operators rent their premises. To remain in business, operators need to charge a daily rate that will factor in rent, wage costs, insurances, food etc., all of which have experienced steep increases in the last 12-18 months. If that number is substantially higher than what older centres in the area are currently charging, most operators won’t venture into the area to open a new centre, as they’re concerned families won’t be willing or able to pay a higher rate.

Don’t worry, the NSW Government is onto it though, with Parliament recently passing a Government Bill that allocates $5B in funding to support the development of new childcare centres in areas of low supply or ‘childcare deserts’. The Department of Education is currently developing the implementation program around this initiative, so watch this space.

How are waitlists managed?

Because of the lack of supply, many families end up on multiple waitlists for care, receiving a heap of email updates and hoping that one day they will get ‘The Call’.

Every operator manages their waitlist differently. Some will openly admit that places are offered to the squeakiest wheel, others follow a strict ‘first-in, best-dressed’ approach. How the waitlist is administered will also depend on whether it’s a new or existing centre.

New centres will have places available in every single age group and for every single day of the week. They’ll start out by offering to the group of families that have been on the waitlist the longest, and who need care first, working their way down the list methodically.

For existing centres, the peak re-enrolment time is December/January, as there is a cohort of children that will graduate from early learning and commence formal schooling which will create spaces in the centre. Once they leave, the centre will shift children into new rooms and this will usually free up some spaces in the younger age groups. Otherwise, spaces will free up throughout the year as people move house, change jobs, or find another centre that they prefer.

It is important to make sure that your waitlist reflects your earliest preferred start date. If a space becomes available in September, the centre will start with families who have start dates before that, and work up to September. If you originally put your start date down as December, but would happily take a place earlier, then make sure your start date reflects the earliest you are prepared to start. However, we do recommend avoiding putting down 1970 or 1812 as a start date, as that may result in your waitlist record being overlooked on the grounds that it appears to be an error...

Other factors

Services may also take into consideration the availability of staff, as Educator to Child ratios under the applicable law must be met at all times. For example, they may have vacancy to take 4 extra children in the birth to two-year-old room, but if they don’t have the Educator to meet the ratio for those children, they typically won’t offer those places until an Educator has been hired and inducted. The recruitment market in the early childhood sector is pretty challenging at the moment, and sometimes it can take months to find the right person for a vacant role.

How can I get priority?

The Federal Government used to have priority of access guidelines under the old Childcare Benefit regime which was inconsistently applied, mostly because it was tricky to reliably collect the information required from families in order to administer the guidelines.

These days there are no longer any legal requirements to give certain families priority of access, although the Federal Government does ask that priority be given to children:

  • at risk of serious abuse or neglect; or
  • of a sole parent who satisfies the activity test.

The NSW Government recently announced the introduction of priority of access guidelines as part of their $1.2B 'Start Strong' program. The 'Start Strong' program is due to be introduced in 2023, and provides funding relief to parents for children over the age of 4 enrolled in long day care and preschool services. For more information, check out the NSW Government's website.

None of the above should stop you from letting the service know of any extenuating circumstances that make your requirement for care particularly urgent. It is also standard in the industry to give priority to siblings and to children already enrolled who want more or different days of care. 

Some final tips on getting a place in childcare

  • Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel! If you are on the waitlist and haven’t heard from the service in a while, don’t hesitate to call or email and check in. It may be that you’ve accidentally been marked ‘inactive’ by an enrolments officer or a busy Centre Manager.
  • If you can get a spot, and it’s not exactly the days that you would like, be flexible if you can! You may start on a Friday, and then use your priority to add or change to your preferred days.
  • Make sure you keep the service updated on your care needs. If you need care a month earlier than originally planned, make sure you let the service know! It may be necessary to take a spot a few weeks earlier than you need it so as to secure a place.

We know it can feel like the Hunger Games at times, but hopefully these tips will help families navigate what can be a pretty opaque process.

Need further advice or have more questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out to the team on!