In most co-operative breeding species, some individuals contribute much more to helping behaviour than others. The most well-established explanation of such variation is based on kin selection and suggests that, in the absence of detectable differences in relatedness, individuals who suffer lower costs for a given level of help should contribute more. Differences in helping effort between dominance/sex categories were investigated in co-operatively breeding banded mongooses Mungos mungo in Uganda. The most conspicuous form of help in this species is provided by individuals who babysit offspring at the den while the rest of the pack goes off to forage. Across eight groups, the survival rate of pups increased with the average number of babysitters guarding them, consistent with the hypothesis that helpers benefit the brood that they guard. There was no difference between dominant males, subordinate males and breeding females in total contributions to babysitting. Subordinate males, however, contributed more to babysitting in the mornings, which were the longest and presumably the most energetically expensive sessions of the day. In six litters in one well-studied pack, dominant males and breeding females reduced their contribution to babysitting for the period that females were in oestrus. By contrast, subordinate males increased their contribution to become the main babysitters during this time. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that, where helping conflicts with breeding, individuals with little chance of direct reproduction can help at a lower fitness cost than those with a high probability of successful reproduction.