Aims. This paper reports the findings of a national study of the variations in the provision and correlates of respite breaks to families.Background. Internationally, respite breaks are a major support service to family carers, demand for which often exceeds supply for persons with an intellectual disability. Hence, the length of breaks available to families has to be rationed. Nurses are often involved in such decisions.Method. National data on the use of respite breaks by over 4000 families in a full calendar year (2008) were analysed to examine the variation within the Republic of Ireland on two indicators: namely the proportion of carers who had any access to breaks and the median number of days they had received.Findings. Striking differences across health service areas were found on both indicators of usage. These were not solely attributable to the availability of provision but also reflected variations in the criteria local services used to allocate places. However, those persons with more severe disabilities were given priority, whereas carer characteristics were not a major influence. Contact with social workers and community nurses also increased the likelihood of carers receiving respite breaks.Conclusion. Intra-country comparisons of service delivery should assist planners in creating more equitable access to respite breaks and the development of more explicit eligibility criteria for their use. Nurses are well placed to lead on this.