Working mum, Cassie Harvey, had been on the verge of taking leave without pay and overdrawing on her home loan after not being able to secure a spot for her toddler in a Dubbo childcare centre.
Ms Harvey, a permanent teacher at Narromine high school who is due to return to work at the end of August, went on maternity leave last year to give birth to her daughter, Eleanor.
She began her search for childcare four months ago and thought would have plenty of time to find a spot for her daughter. After trying more than 10 different places, Eleanor was accepted to Hawthorne Street childcare centre on August 1, the day the centre opened.
"[It was] such a relief," Ms Harvey said.
Prior to her daughter's enrolment, Ms Harvey had been on tours of centres in Dubbo and many had extremely long waiting lists. She said some would only put her on their list if she made a $50 deposit. With inflation and rising costs of groceries, and a mortgage to pay, Ms Harvey did not want to pay the fee.
"Just to go on waiting lists, it costs money as well, which I think is ridiculous, to pay money when you're not guaranteed a spot," she said.
"One time I rung a local one which I really liked and its really close to our house. They basically said, 'Don't bother with the tour because we don't have any spots'. I asked if I could go on the waiting list and she said, 'Well you can, but there's 60 people in front of you'.
"It [was] really stressful because I [had] to get back to work soon. I went to every single childcare, like how many people are doing that?"
New centre filling quickly
Hawthorne, located behind Carl's Jr is Dubbo's newest childcare centre. Many parents who have been unsuccessful finding a place for their children are now turning to the new day-care centre and manager Leena Robinson said spots are filling quickly.
Ms Harvey isn't alone in her struggle finding a childcare place. Local mother Carly Meritt posted to social media saying she was "getting desperate" as she couldn't find vacancies at daycare centres for her toddler. Another parent, Noelle Fogarty, replied saying, "good luck, I've been calling them all and nowhere has any spots".
Aside from Hawthorn, none of the local childcare centres the Daily Liberal spoke to for this story had any spots open for children under the age of 2. Parents who put their kids on a waitlist should anticipate a long wait, with waitlists of up to 100 children at some centres.
Get on a waitlist as soon as you find out you're pregnant.- Ann Keen
Chloe Whiteman, Assistant Director at Dubbo Peppercorn Child Care Centre, said her centre won't have any availability until next year and parents "should already be on a waitlist" if they're hoping for a childcare place for their infant in 2023.
"I've seen an almost 50 per cent increase in people going on the waiting list over the past year," she said. "I've been here for seven years and these days I get 10 to 20 inquiries weekly, responding to them is almost a full time job."
Rainbow Cottage's Centre Co-ordinator, Ann Keen, said she has received lots of inquiries from parents finding out they have to go back to work and looking for a spot in the next month or two but there may not be enough open spots for all the children on their waitlist until 2024. Her advice to parents? "Get on a waitlist as soon as you find out you're pregnant".
Mum-of-two Lynn Rayner, who has worked at the Daily Liberal, expected finding a childcare place for her 9-month-old would be a challenge after contending with the shortage when she had her first born, who is now three.
"I've been searching actively for a place for about 3 months but I knew last year that it would be very, very hard to get childcare in Dubbo to go back to work," she said.
"A lot of the childcare centres have their intakes in January, so all the kids come in and if no-one leaves they don't have a spot to fill. So looking for a spot in September - so close to the end of the year - all those spots are already filled, there's just such high demand."
Staffing a major issue
While some in the community are calling for more child care centres to be built to make waiting lists more manageable - local childcare centres say staffing the rooms they have is a challenge.
The National Quality Framework for child care requires centres to have 1 staff member for every 4 children under 24 months old and new centres are struggling to meet that criteria.
Nicole Stonestreet, Centre Manager at Insight Early Learning Southlakes which opened in November last year, said her centre is "constantly recruiting" and it's difficult to find someone to fill in when staff are off sick as "the casual pool is next to none".
Mrs Rayner also felt relief when she finally secured a spot for her younger child at a local centre for three days a week.
"I'm actually really lucky to have family support for a couple of days a week, there's a lot of people who don't have someone they can lean on for that support," she said.