Hundreds of early years providers in the South East have closed down, Ofsted data shows.
Between March and August 2023, 242 providers across Kent, Sussex and Surrey shut their doors.
Nurseries said they could not afford to run and were facing a staffing crisis.
The Department for Education (DfE) recognised “local challenges” in childcare availability but said it was “rolling out the single biggest investment” in the sector ever.
Graffham Nursery, a non-profit childcare provider in rural West Sussex, closed in August as it ran out of money and could not recruit staff.
Florence Sherwood, former chairperson of Graffham Nursery’s governance committee, said management had to “cut everything to the bone” before making the decision to close.
It was “really hard, really stressful and really sad”, she said.
“All of our bills were going up. All of our costs were going up. The staffing costs were going up because the minimum wage payments had gone up,” Ms Sherwood added.
The nursery used to “get seven applicants within a couple of weeks” for job vacancies but this year, an advert for an early years practitioner attracted two applications in six months – neither of whom were qualified.
Stepping Stone Preschool in Canterbury, Kent, opened in 1967 but came close to closing down earlier this year.
The provider had to run a JustGiving campaign and access external funding from charities, the council and alumni in order to stay open.
Sally Heath, manager at Stepping Stones, said: “We are chronically underfunded by government as the free child places do not cover our costs, the national living wage increases each year and we can barely afford to pay our staff that.
“It’s a shame as demand for two-year-old places has never been higher, as these will also be covered by free childcare from April 2024.”
Research from the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC) said 57% of nursery staff were considering leaving in the next 12 months.
The DfE said it was “launching a new national recruitment campaign” and “looking to introduce a new accelerated apprenticeship route into the sector”.
Kate, a mother of two in Brighton, said her children had moved between three different childcare providers over the past three years due to closures – one with four weeks notice.
Her daughter, aged three, and son, 18 months, are now in separate nurseries as she could not find one to accommodate them both.
She said the experience had been “stressful and challenging”.
However, Kate said when she was looking for new providers, choice was extremely limited and some nurseries had waiting lists over a year long.
Kate said although she was happy with her daughter’s nursery, she was “really struggling” with the disruption of changing to a different setting for the second time.
“She’s sad. She misses her friends. To hear your three-year-old say that is really hard,” Kate said.
The DfE said it had begun investing “hundreds of millions of pounds to increase hourly funding rates”, and will soon invest “£100m in capital funding for more early years and wrapround places and spaces”.
By April 2024, the government intends to provide 15 hours of childcare to all working parents with a two-year-old, rising to 30 hours for all children aged nine months to four years old by September 2025.
However, the EECC reported that only 17% of nurseries would be able to deliver these additional hours due to staff shortages and financial pressures.