Officials and experts have highlighted the significance of stepping up affordable nursery services as part of efforts to reduce the financial burden on parents raising children and address low fertility rates in the country.
During a meeting held by the China Population Association this week, they called for increasing the number of affordable, government-subsidized nurseries across the nation, as well as training and hiring more professionals in the sector.
Yu Xuejun, deputy head of the National Health Commission, said low fertility is one of the fundamental challenges that China is currently grappling with.
Official data show that the country's total fertility rate — the number of children born to each woman during their reproductive years — dropped from 1.52 in 2019 to 1.07 in 2022.
"To address the issue, it is essential to reduce the costs of giving birth and raising and educating children, including by establishing an affordable nursery system to help families cope," he said.
Chen Chen, an official with the commission's population surveillance and family development department, said that developed countries with a relatively high or stable level of fertility have all invested a great deal of money into developing their nursery industries.
For instance, France offers free nursery services for poor families when their children reach the age of 2. And in the Netherlands, subsidies cover 33 to 96 percent of nursery fees based on families' income levels.
In China, Chen said that nearly 32.2 million children age 3 and under require child care.
"More than one-third of all families, and over two-thirds of families in metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in Guangdong province are in need of such services," she said.
By the end of 2022, China had about 75,000 nursery institutions, with 3.6 million available slots for children. The number of nursery slots per 1,000 people stood at 2.75, still lagging behind the national goal of 4.5 slots per 1,000 by 2025, according to officials.
Guan Bo, a researcher from the Academy of Macroeconomic Research administered by the National Development and Reform Commission, said that China's nursery capacity has been increasing, but the gap between demand and availability remains stark.
"It is projected that realizing the objective of having 4.5 slots per 1,000 people by 2025 would require another 2.8 million nursery slots," he said.
Guan said that while financial policies aimed at subsidizing infrastructure and equipment at public nursery centers have been rolled out, sustainable policies aimed at supporting their operations are still lacking.
"More comprehensive financial policies are needed to reduce operation costs of affordable nursery service providers," he said.
Yang Yin, an official from China National Children's Center, said that a survey conducted by the center from 2019 to 2022 shows that 32 percent of nursery institutions are lacking healthcare staff members.
In addition, although 85 percent of nursery workers have college degrees or diplomas from vocational schools or senior high schools, their certificates affirming their nursery skills are varied and irregular.
"Also, nearly one-third of center directors and one-third of nursery workers have not received any kind of special training," Yang said.
She said that more efforts should be made to promote a better understanding of national nursery care standards and regulations among local governments, establish hiring requirements for nursery staff members and launch standard training programs.