Parents south of the Border are now legally entitled to 15 hours of nursery education for three and four-year-olds, but a formal agreement to achieve this in Scotland by 2010 has been delayed.
Only a handful of Scottish councils meet that level, prompting Labour to warn of a postcode lottery for families.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran said: “Nursery care is of huge importance to women and families throughout Scotland and it is also of huge importance for the Scottish economy as it helps parents get to work.
“There is a real fear that this is becoming a luxury because too many families simply cannot afford it.”
Labour says that “affordable, flexible childcare” is a must for a modern economy and nursery care is part of this mix.
“The SNP government are falling very far behind,” Mrs Curran added. “In fact, Scotland is now significantly behind the rest of the UK. Recent announcements on looked-after children are welcome but fall a long way short of what we need to see.”
Labour says it started pilot schemes for pre-school education for vulnerable two-year-olds in Glasgow, Dundee and North Ayrshire, but the SNP cancelled them in 2007.
A recent survey by Save the Children and the Daycare Trust found that Scottish childcare costs are the highest in the UK and that a third of families living on less than £12,000 a year had gone into debt due to care costs.
Cuts to working tax credit have added an average of £500 per year to childcare costs for low income families, the charity said. It also wants to see the introduction of an entitlement of 15 hours childcare per week for two-year-olds, starting with those families on the lowest incomes.
The Social Market Foundation recently found that the increase in childcare costs for the average family is about £600.
Mrs Curran added: “I recognise that the scale of the change needed is significant, but with determination and cross-party support, we can make real progress for Scotland. I am calling to make childcare an absolute priority for 2012.”
But a Scottish Government spokesman said it is committed to expanding and improving the quality of early learning and childcare, with initial efforts targeting children and families most in need.
The spokesman added: “As a first step, we’re providing £4.5 million over the next three years to local authorities to deliver additional childcare for all looked-after two-year-olds.
“We’re also working with the Early Years Task Force to identify how we can further enhance childcare and determine how the £270 million identified in the Early Years Change Fund could be best spent in future.
“As part of our policy of early intervention and preventative spend in the early years, we’ve also created the new Communities and Families Fund which will receive £1.5 million annually to assist local childcare and family support work.”