The Government's social mobility tsar has warned that childcare funding is a "mess" after a poll found around a fifth of parents have no idea what support is on offer.
Former cabinet minister Alan Milburn said the £6 billion a year pledged in public funding by 2020 should be a "poverty-busting, work-enhancing policy".
But he said the taxpayer may not get "maximum bang for the buck" because the system is far too complex.
From 2017 there will be six different mechanisms for receiving assistance, including childcare vouchers, a new tax-free provision, universal credit, and up to 30 hours of free childcare vouchers for three-year-olds and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds.
A survey of 1,000 parents of young children, carried out by Qa Research for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, showed that just 14% were very clear about what childcare funding they were entitled to and how to get it.
Some 18% said they had no clue what was on offer.
Nearly a third said they knew some help was available, but they had no idea what they were eligible for or how to get it.
Overall 47% had either no or very little understanding of what support there was available to help them with the costs of childcare.
The proportion rose to 53% when just looking at working class parents.
Commission chairman Mr Milburn, a Labour ex-MP, said: "Hard-pressed parents, at one of the most stressful times of their life, are struggling to make sense of the childcare funding maze. Too many simply cannot work out what help is available.
"The way childcare is being funded is a confusion piled on a muddle piled on a mess. Without urgent simplification there is a real risk that the Government's noble aims to close the gender pay gap and boost maternal employment will simply not be realised."