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Who counts as a child?

In England and Wales, a child is anyone who isn’t yet 18 years old. This is the case even if a young person lives independently or is in the army. In Scotland, who is considered to be a child varies in different contexts. If a young person aged between 16 and 18 and needs support and protection, services will consider which legal framework is most relevant (ie these young people may or may not be considered to be children). The national guidance for child protection in Scotland explains this system and explains how professionals should act to protect young people from harm in different circumstances. 

What is parental responsibility?

The Children Act 1989 sets out the concept of parental responsibility. If someone has parental responsibility for a child, this means that they have certain rights and responsibilities relevant to that child’s upbringing. Generally, all mothers, many fathers and same-sex partners, and some others have parental responsibility.

Essentially, having parental responsibility involves:

  • being responsible for the child’s wellbeing

  • making decisions about their schooling

  • making decisions about their religious upbringing

  • deciding where the child should live

  • consenting to medical treatment on their behalf

  • representing the child in legal proceedings

When a matter under the Children Act 1989 is taken to court, the court will place the greatest importance of a child’s welfare and the idea that children are best looked after by their family unless an intervention in family life is needed (eg to ensure the child’s safety).

Where a child is made subject to a care order, the local authority is given parental responsibility and will share it with current parental responsibility holders. A local authority can only get the court to issue a care order if there is concern that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, serious harm based on the care given or not given to them. The local authority can exercise their parental responsibility above that of the current holders so far as it is necessary to safeguard the welfare of a child.

For more information, read Parental responsibility

Birth and registration

Parents have the right to give birth either at home, in a hospital, or at another location, although giving birth in a pre-selected location might not end up being possible. You can make a Birth plan to outline your preferences for the ideal situation for your birth.

Parents in England and Wales must register their child within 42 days of birth. You should do this at the local register office for the area where your child is born or, if the baby was born in a hospital, you can do it there before you leave. Once you have registered the birth, you can buy either a short or long birth certificate each for a charge.

In Scotland, children should be registered within 21 days of birth and children can be registered in any registration office. A short birth certificate is free and a full birth certificate can be obtained for a charge.

You can change a child’s name after you’ve registered their birth. For more information, read Changing the name of your child.

Can I take my child to work with me?

There is no law preventing parents from taking their child to work in the case of an emergency, for example, if their school is closed at short notice. However, whether this is possible will depend on the particular organisation that the parent works for (eg on the nature of the parent’s job). 

However, other rights give parents alternative options for looking after their child if the child can’t go to school at short notice. For example: 

Employers are legally obligated to make sure that a workplace is safe not only for employees but for any visitors, including children. If a child has an accident in their parent’s workplace, liability for the accident would depend on the particular circumstances.

Do I have to vaccinate my child?

It is not a legal requirement for parents to vaccinate their children. However, it is strongly advised for parents to discuss their choices around vaccinations with their child’s doctor (eg their GP). 

For more information on recommended vaccinations, read the NHS’ guidance on vaccinations.

Children and travel

International travel

All children who travel outside of the UK, including newborns, must have their own individual passports. Children cannot be included on their parents’ passports. A child's passport lasts for 5 years. Someone with parental responsibility must apply for a child’s passport. A child can get their first adult passport when they are 16.

For more information on travelling with your child, read Travelling with a child. Consider making a Child travel consent form if you are travelling with your child, someone else is travelling with your child or if your child is travelling on their own.

Driving safely

Everyone must wear a seatbelt, regardless of whether they are a child or not. A driver must make sure that any children in a vehicle they are driving are in the correct car seat for their height and weight until the children turn 12 or reach 135cm in height, whichever happens first. 

A driver can be fined up to £500 if a child under 14 isn’t either in the correct car seat or wearing a seatbelt while they are driving. The driver must make sure there is only one person in each seat that has a seatbelt.

Am I allowed to hit my child as a punishment?

It is not illegal for a parent to smack or hit their child in England, but it is illegal to physically assault other people. So, if the smacking crosses a line beyond ‘reasonable punishment’, a parent could be charged with assault

Hitting is likely to be unreasonable if the child is left with a mark, for example, bruising or swelling, or if the child suffers mental harm. The child’s age will also play a role in what is considered reasonable. It is also likely to be thought unreasonable if a parent hits their child with an implement such as a cane or a belt. If a parent is charged with assault, their child could be placed in local authority care.

Smacking is banned in Scotland and Wales.

Can I leave my child home alone?

Although it is not illegal to leave children home alone, it is an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk. This is a matter for the parent’s own judgement, but children under 12, for example, are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time. If parents leave their children unsupervised in a manner likely to cause suffering or injury, they can be prosecuted.

What happens if my child leaves home?

Parents cannot prevent children from leaving home by physically restraining them or locking them in. They can take court action to bring a child back if they run away, but it is unlikely that a court would force a child over the age of 16 to return home unless it could be shown that the child was in danger. If a child moves out, their parents are still legally responsible for the child.

In England and Wales, young people cannot have a Tenancy agreement to rent a property in their own name until they are 18. In Scotland, young people can have a tenancy agreement from the age of 16.



Childminders, nurseries, and playgroups must be registered and inspected by Ofsted. Ofsted inspection reports are published online on a public database. Anyone who looks after one or more children on domestic premises for payment for more than 2 hours a day must be registered as a childminder (unless they are related to the children). Home childcarers are professionals who look after children in the child’s own home. They must also be registered as a childminder.

There is no minimum age for a babysitter that a parent hires and a babysitter does not need any qualifications. What’s appropriate is up to the parent’s judgement. However, if a parent leaves a child with a babysitter who is under 16 and the child is injured in their care, it is possible that the parent could still be held responsible and deemed negligent.

Nannies are not covered by the same regulations as childminders. They are not required to be checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) or to register with the local authority. Parents are therefore advised to follow up on references when making their own arrangements with nannies.

You can use our Childcare contract to set out agreed terms for your childcare arrangements.

Some 3 and 4-year-olds are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare a week. This must be with an approved childcare provider. A child’s eligibility depends on whether their parent is working, what the parent’s income is, the child’s age and circumstances, and the parent’s immigration status. Read the government’s guidance to see if you are eligible. Different schemes exist in Scotland and Wales

It is illegal for teachers, nursery staff, childcare workers, childminders, or home childcarers to smack children. It is not illegal for nannies or babysitters to smack children as long as the parents agree.

Early childhood education

Children aged 3-4 are entitled to 570 hours of free early education a year. Some 2-year-olds are also entitled to the same. This covers nurseries, playgroups, preschools, and childminders belonging to an approved network. A child is entitled to free education even if the place from which they receive it normally charges. 

You can find out what free early education and childcare is available in your area on the government’s website. All local authorities must ensure that there is sufficient childcare available for working parents, especially parents in lower income groups or with disabled children.

Who has to pay for child maintenance after separation?

Parents can choose how to make arrangements for looking after their children after divorce or separation. This can enable them to avoid going to court. 

However, a parent who does not live with a child must maintain the child. Parents should have a child maintenance arrangement if their child is under 16 or, if the child is still in full-time education, under 20. Both parents are responsible for covering the costs of raising their children, even if they do not see them. This might apply even if the child is not the child of both parents but has been treated as a child of the family. For more information, read our guides on child maintenance in England and Wales and in Scotland.

What arrangements can I make about my child after divorce?

If both parents have parental responsibility, the law does not distinguish between married and unmarried couples

Regarding custody and access, parents do not have to go to court to make arrangements for contact with children but can just make their own arrangements. However, if no arrangement can be reached, the court can intervene and make a decision which is in the best interests of the child or children. A child arrangements order made by the court can state where the child will live and with whom. These orders can accommodate shared parenting. Additionally, a specific issue order can be used to answer a specific question about a child’s upbringing. For example, regarding their schooling or religion. Finally, a prohibited steps order can prevent one parent from making a decision about a child’s upbringing. 

Abandonment, ill treatment, and neglect

The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 imposes criminal liability for abandonment, ill-treatment, or neglect of children under the age of 16. Avoiding neglect is a parent’s responsibility and cannot be transferred to, for example, a babysitter who hurts or neglects a child. Neglect can include (but is not limited to) not providing a child with food, clothing, healthcare, or housing. 

What is child abduction?

Child abduction is when a person takes or sends a child under the age of 16 out of the UK without the consent of those with parental responsibility or the consent of the court. It is a criminal offence for a parent, guardian, or anyone with custody to remove a child from the UK without the permission of anyone else holding parental responsibility. However, there is no legal requirement to seek the consent of all those with parental responsibility to travel within the UK. 

If the parent has a child arrangements order or a special guardianship order, they may be able to take the child out of the UK without the appropriate consent for up to 28 days or for 3 months, respectively. If you cannot get the appropriate consent from everyone with parental responsibility, you can apply for consent from the court. 

If you fear your child is going to be abducted, or your child has been abducted, you should speak to the police.

What support is available for children with special educational needs or disabilities?

If a child has a disability or has special educational needs (SEN), their parents have a right to support from the local council. This may include:

  • respite care (ie short breaks) from looking after a child with a disability

  • holiday pay schemes

  • care at home

  • aids and adaptations

  • financial help, in certain circumstances, for example with childcare costs

For more information, read Children and special educational needs.

Parents’ rights and responsibilities concerning their children’s education 

Parents are responsible for ensuring their child receives an education and can face prosecution for not doing so. A parent can also be responsible for their child missing school, even if the parent doesn’t know about it.

For more information, read Laws on children’s education.

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