By Carol Band
Looking for a good babysitter? Chat up the parents at your neighborhood playground and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: “There’s only a small window of opportunity for babysitters – when they’re old enough to be responsible and young enough not to be out with their friends every Friday or Saturday night.”
These days, that means the prime age for a babysitter is somewhere between 11 (for a mother’s helper) and 16 (for a caregiver who can handle a late night). But even when you’ve found a good one – someone you’ve just broken in – all of a sudden, she’s got a date or other plans on the nights you need her. Or maybe your sitter is in such high demand that he’s always booked by the Johnson’s or the Brown’s. Just how do you find a good babysitter – especially when you’re still wet behind the ears as a parent yourself? And once you’ve found one, how do you keep a sitter long enough for your kids and you to feel a comfortable sense of security and trust?
On the Hunt
Word of mouth is probably your best bet when looking for a reliable sitter. Ask other parents about their babysitters, but keep in mind that they may be hesitant to give a referral. After all, they still need that sitter; make sure you don’t end up competing with them for childcare.
Here are some other suggestions to help you in your sitter search:
• Look around you. Know any parents with older daughters or sons? Ask about their availability. Or perhaps there is an adult in your neighborhood – a single mom or a grandmother – who is interested in baby-sitting for additional income.
• Check at your neighborhood convenience store, church or library. Budding babysitters often put up signs notifying parents that they’re available. Libraries and hospitals sometimes offer baby-sitting courses and the staff there may be able to refer you to recent “graduates.” • Put your name and needs in with the student employment office at local colleges. College students are often looking for convenient ways to earn money. If you’re lucky, you might get a student majoring in education or child development.
• If you can’t find a sitter who’s at least 13, don’t shy away from hiring someone as young as 11 or 12. If this adolescent has taken a baby-sitting course, he or she may become your most reliable and loyal sitter. You’ll have the chance to break her in. Start her as a mother’s helper, entertaining your kids while you’re still in the home. Then leave her for a short time, while you run a quick errand or two. As your sitter matures, you can work up to leaving her with your children while you enjoy a much-deserved night on the town.
Keeping a Caregiver
Once you’ve found a reliable babysitter, how do you keep him or her? Before you step out on the town, here’s what you should do to ensure that your babysitter will return for another visit to your house.
• Be flexible with your schedule. To avoid rejection by popular babysitters, try booking them on off-days. Go out for Sunday brunch or linger over a cappuccino on Wednesday evening.
• Book your sitter in advance. As soon as your plans are made, contact your sitter. This gives your sitter enough notice and makes it more likely that he or she will not already have plans. • Investigate local baby-sitting rates. These vary with the sitter’s age, experience and neighborhood. Always discuss rates prior to the sit and make sure both you and the sitter are comfortable with the agreed upon rate. Don’t nickel-and-dime your sitter either; if you return home 30 minutes earlier than you thought, pay for the full hour anyway.
• Consider enrolling prospective sitters in baby-sitting classes – or look to them for referrals. These courses, offered at many local hospitals, libraries or high schools, teach prospective sitters how to care for children at various ages, handle emergency situations and communicate with the parents to ensure that both sides have all the information they need.
• If you are using a new babysitter, arrange a practice sit or meeting where the sitter can meet your children and you can answer any questions. Pay the sitter the agreed hourly wage for this visit.
• Prepare for your sitter. Try to leave your home relatively neat (and don’t expect your sitter to do dishes or fold laundry). Have snacks available for the sitter and for your children. Lay out the children’s pajamas and outline the bedtime rituals and rules.
• Leave your sitter with a list of emergency numbers, including the number of a neighbor that your children know. Leave an address and number for where you’ll be (in addition to your cell phone number, if you have one). Check our Safety First checklist.
• If a sitter is new, check-in an hour or so after you’ve left the house. This can put your mind at ease and give the sitter a chance to ask questions. It’s always a good idea to check in with any sitter at some point during your absence
. • Arrive home on time. Pay the sitter promptly in cash. Check on the children and then, if appropriate, drive the sitter home.
These books are great manuals for both babysitters and parents:
• The Babysitter's Handbook: The Care and Keeping of Kids (American Girl), by Harriet Brown, American Girl, 1999. Friendly, informative guide, particularly for younger beginners.
• The New Complete Babysitter's Handbook, by Carol Barkin and Elizabeth James, Clarion Books, 1995. Covers all aspects, including finding jobs and techniques for feeding, playtime, bedtime and more. Also covers newer ground, such as respecting a family’s values and children’s rights, as well as problem situations with parents.
•What to Expect Baby-Sitter's Handbook, by Heidi Murkoff, Workman Publishing Company, 2003. From the co-author of the popular “What to Expect” parenting series comes this practical guide covering feeding, first aid, time-outs, sibling disputes and more. Plus 61 of the most common questions babysitters ask.
• American Safety & Health Institute (ASHI) – This first-aid training and safety organization has numerous links to safety and emergency tips on its Web site. You can also order a babysitter’s handbook through the site’s Training Programs link.
Carol Band is a beloved-by-babysitters mother of three, blogger and columnist. Read her blog Household Words. Dominion Parenting Media Senior Editor Deirdre Wilson also contributed to this piece.