Opinion: Sweden's grandparent leave policy will never work in the UK. Here's why.

 Shot of grandparents bonding with their little grandson at home.
Credit: Getty Images

At first glance, Sweden's new grandparent leave policy sounds brilliant. But here's why it wouldn’t work in the UK.

Sweden has done it again. As if showing the world how to do social equality wasn’t enough, now the country that boasts some of the most generous parental leave in existence has launched something new - a grandparent leave initiative. It’s the latest in a string of family-friendly policies that leave many UK parents eyeing up a possible move to Sweden.

The idea is that parents can transfer some of their paid parental leave to the child’s grandparents, so the parent can continue working but the grandparent isn't out of pocket. Currently, parents in Sweden get 480 days of allowance and, under the new policy, they’d have the option to allocate up to 45 days (90 days for single parents) to grandparents. Of course, it’s an idea that needs plenty of variables firmly in place to work. For starters, you need a reliable, willing grandparent living nearby who is capable of caring for your child - something not every parent has available to them.

It’s a wonderful idea if you live in a country like Sweden with a generous social welfare system where work-life balance is held in universally high regard. But it’s utterly misguided to think it could ever work to cut and paste this initiative from its setting in Sweden to the UK. There’s one hell of a roadblock in the way - or perhaps an elephant in the room - of grandparent leave ever working in the UK. It’s this: our shameful lack of affordable childcare.

There’s one hell of a roadblock in the way - or perhaps an elephant in the room - of grandparent leave working in the UK and it’s this: our shameful lack of affordable childcare.

Since you’re reading a parenting site I probably don’t need to tell you that returning to work after having a baby is prohibitive for many families, thanks to the extortionate cost of childcare. Parents must spend £157.68 per week to secure a part-time childcare place for a child under two years, according to the 23rd annual Childcare Survey by Coram. At £7,500 per year, that’s a sizeable chunk of the household income if a family earns the average annual wage of around £31,000.

Factor in the cost of living remaining high and it’s easy to see why, for many parents, returning to work after having a baby simply doesn’t add up. For many mothers, the only option seems to be stepping out of the workforce to focus on raising a family. And I’m only scratching the surface of this issue. We haven’t begun to address how this plays out for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The same report found a sharp decline in childcare availability for disabled children, which has dropped to just 6%, placing them at an even greater disadvantage.

Cropped close-up of baby boy sleeping in the arms of an older person
Cropped close-up of baby boy sleeping in the arms of an older person

In this context, the idea of grandparents stepping in to raise their children’s offspring might seem idyllic. It certainly conjures up a heartwarming scene. But the reality is often harsher, with ageing grandparents feeling the strain both in terms of their wellbeing and financial circumstances. About 16% of grandparents in the UK have taken early retirement or reduced their working hours to care for their grandchildren, according to one report, and various studies show that around 30% of grandparents who provide childcare - saving families an average of £1,786 per year in formal childcare costs - feel stressed by their childcare responsibilities. Proof, for those who need it, that relying on grandparents isn’t the answer to the prayers of working parents.

Don’t get me wrong; the thought that my three kids might one day rely on me for childcare fills me with joy. I can think of nothing better than spending my retirement enjoying the wonders of being a grandmother. But let’s be clear, I also passionately believe that this is not my problem to solve.

So in our rush to applaud Sweden’s approach let’s not overlook the real problem and its trickier solutions. Policymakers and politicians must address the UK’s shocking lack of affordable childcare as a matter of urgency and not leave parents to weave together a fragile framework of unsustainable, unfair fixes.

'My war cry has been ‘That's it, we're moving to Sweden!' ever since my son was around three years old,’ says GoodtoKnow’s family editor, Stephanie Lowe. But she agrees that grandparent leave isn’t the solution some believe it to be. ‘The cost of everything and especially childcare is one of the main reasons we didn’t have a second child as we don’t live near to our extended families,’ she adds.

The solution to the UK's childcare crisis isn’t simply to ‘be more Sweden’. We don’t need to rope in the grandparents. We need to reform the childcare system.

More than ever, I’m convinced the solution to the childcare crisis in the UK isn’t to simply ‘be more Sweden’. We don’t need to rope in the grandparents. We need to reform the childcare system. We don’t need grandpaternity leave. We need affordable childcare that’s universally accessible so that parents can return to work without offloading the logistics onto a generation that has, arguably, already played their part. And, unlike the Government's recent widening of the free childcare scheme which was beset by staffing problems and insufficient funding, we need robust policies that don't simply pose more problems.

Instead of asking grandparents to take up the slack for families, we need more government funding, better training and pay for childcare workers and a simpler parental leave system with adequate pay provision that actually appeals to parents.

Employers need to play their part too. Encouraging flexible working, providing on-site childcare, and offering enhanced parental leave packages could all make it easier for mothers to juggle work and parenthood. It makes business sense too - there’s plenty of evidence to show that better support for parents in the workplace has numerous benefits for employers too.

But ultimately, I think we also need to face facts: we have a long way to go before parenting is seen as a shared responsibility in the UK, as it is in Sweden. With so few dads taking up shared parental leave here, we must recognise that raising children is still essentially considered women’s work, and we’ve got to find ways to challenge that narrative.

Well done, Sweden, for once again leading the global conversation on work-life balance. But please, here in the UK, let’s recognise that without radical investment in a fit-for-purpose childcare system and without cultural change that places value on family life and the contribution parents make, granny daycare is not the easy or reliable solution it might first appear to be.

3 reasons why grandparent leave won't work

  • Cultural differences - work-life balance is highly valued in Sweden whereas in the UK, grandparents could encounter difficulty taking grandparent leave.

  • The economy - granting extra leave for grandparents would cause knock-on problems in the UK's job market, especially in sectors that are understaffed.

  • Parental leave provision - Sweden's social support system is famously family-friendly but the UK lacks the policies to make grandparent leave work smoothly.

If you love a juicy parenting debate on a topical theme, check out Charging for playdates: money savvy or rude? and The 'bedroom parents vs living room parents' debate has gone viral - I'm the latter and here's why... or for some food for thought during nap time or when the kids are finally in bed, try “You only have 18 summers” - 3 reasons why I hate this parenting meme or I tried the ‘romanticise your life’ social trend as a busy mum of three - here's what happened.