The number of childcare places in housing estates where there is a high demand for pre-school is set to grow by 40 per cent over the next four years.
This works out to about 8,000 additional places which will be made available in Punggol, Jurong West, Woodlands, Bukit Panjang and Tampines, said the Early Childhood Development Agency, which oversees the pre-school sector.
There are currently 20,000 childcare places in these five estates, with about 88 per cent of them filled as of July. Other high-demand areas include Sengkang and Marine Parade.
These estates, which have new housing projects sprouting up, tend to draw young couples starting families.
The agency gave The Straits Times an update on its plans to boost the number of childcare places, following its announcement last week that rental subsidies will be given to small and mid-sized operators to entice them to open more centres in these high-demand places.
Under the new measures, these operators can apply for up to 60 per cent rental subsidies when they set up in commercial buildings like malls. In return, they must meet affordability and quality criteria. For instance, fees must be capped at $850 a month for a full-day childcare programme over three years after their subsidy application is approved.
Parents and operators hope that the latest measures will ease the keen competition for childcare places, which appears to have intensified in the past few years.
Operators in Sengkang, which has about 70 childcare centres, said they have seen demand surge as more young couples move into newly completed flats.
For instance, Star Learners centre in Compassvale Bow has more than 200 children on its waiting list - double the number just two years ago. Competition is so keen that more parents are registering their offspring even before they are born, said Mr Tan Meng Wei, managing director of Star Learners Group.
It is a similar story at Bearrington Child Care and Development Centre at Compassvale Lane, which has about 100 names in the queue.
Housewife Ong Shi Yee, 37, thought she had a head start when she started looking for a childcare centre for her then six-month-old son a year before his enrolment.
But she got a rude shock when she was told by several non-profit-run centres near her Sengkang home that she had "zero chance" of getting a place because of the long waiting list.
She finally got a place in January - about two years later.
Demand for pre-school is set to grow further.
Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min said the number of housing units there will soar to 27,000 by 2015, up from 11,000 in 2006.
"With the growing number of new Build-to-Order flats, we expect many more young families, and one challenge is the provision of childcare facilities," he said.
Over at Woodlands, parents face an equally tough fight for a coveted childcare place.
Little Greenhouse's Woodlands branch principal Cai Wan Qin said a handful of parents have already signed up with the centre for 2015. Next year's places have all been filled.
Mr Junius Ho, director of the Sweetlands childcare chain, said the new scheme helps small operators get a foot in the door.
He said the childcare chain, which has four of its 10 centres in Woodlands, would apply for the scheme to open another centre in Woodlands if there is available space. "The bigger operators have been opening up so many centres here and that has helped to soak up demand, but the new scheme will help small operators like us to scale up too," he said.
The measures announced last week are part of the Government's drive to provide 20,000 more childcare places by 2017.
Apart from rental subsidies for operators, developers of commercial premises will get incentives in the form of additional floor area when they set aside space for childcare facilities.
In places like Sengkang, the challenge for operators is in finding the space to set up centres.
Eshkol Valley managing director Vincent Yap said: "There are not that many commercial premises in Sengkang and it would take time for new premises to be built even if developers apply for the incentives."
Madam Ong, the Sengkang parent, said the authorities should "think out of the box" in identifying suitable sites. "They can try building centres above carparks or converting entire floors in HDB blocks to childcare centres."