There wasn't a person alive who could have pulled me away from my first baby. We were inseparable. But once we reached the 10-month mark, my husband and I finally decided we needed an official night out. Until then, I'd relied primarily on my mother, who'd step in to help when I had to go to the doctor or run an errand. But there soon came a Saturday when we were desperate for a night out -- and my mom was unavailable. I was finally forced to find my first babysitter.
She came highly recommended by friends and was perfectly lovely in person. But as an anxious new mom, I still found myself phoning home several times during the evening to find out how my daughter was faring. Rushing into the house that night, I was sure I'd find my baby upset and missing us. But Miranda was sleeping peacefully, and the sitter reported that they'd had a wonderful time together.
When you're still getting used to being a mom yourself, it can be hard to entrust your baby to someone else's care. Still, you and your husband need some time alone. Since it's tough to feel calm -- much less romantic -- if you're worrying about your baby, invest some time now in nabbing a reliable sitter. Here's how to find the best fit.
1. Do Your Homework
Assuming your mother's not available and your daytime caregiver doesn't do weekends, look close to home and ask relatives or friends if they'd like to help out. If they're unavailable, check with local colleges and high schools for students who may be interested.
"Community education programs can often be a good resource because they keep lists of people who have taken a babysitter-training course," says Tracy Sawicki, senior director of the American Red Cross in Buffalo and director of the chapter's babysitting course.
Word of mouth can also be a great way to find good help. Suzanne Conrad, mother of two from Findlay, Ohio, found success through a coworker. After mentioning her search, she learned that a colleague's child had completed the Red Cross course and was looking for work. "It turned out well," Conrad recalls. "She's wonderfully interactive with both children, always entertaining them."
Local churches can also be a good place to uncover a hidden gem. Lisa Kindwall, mother of five from Seabrook, South Carolina, found the right fit while observing the teenage volunteers who cared for her church group's children during meetings. "I was fortunate to meet two 15-year-olds who I now use regularly," she says.
2. Set Up an Interview
Once you've lined up some potential picks, get a sense of what they're like by doing a phone interview.
"Always get a little background. Ask her about her home life and childcare experience, and get some references," says Angelina Newbury, babysitting instructor at the Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
When you speak to references, ask open-ended questions. "Instead of asking if she always came on time, try, 'Tell me about Lisa,'" says Kerstin Potter, director of the early-childhood education program at Harcum College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Once everything checks out and you've gotten a feel for her sitting style, schedule an interview in your home. During the meeting, observe how the sitter interacts with your baby, says Patricia Varden, chairperson of the early-childhood education department at Manhattanville College, in Purchase, New York.
"You want someone who's excited about being with your baby, not someone who looks as if she's thinking, okay, this is a job and it's time to check in."
You can also learn a lot about a sitter by giving her potential scenarios, says Greg Stockton, health and safety expert at the American Red Cross. "Ask what she would do if your toddler refused to eat or if the baby wouldn't stop crying."
3. Make Her & Your Kids Comfortable
Before you leave, you'll want your sitter to get the lay of the land. So have her come over beforehand. "She should follow you around the house and spend time with your child," suggests Stacey Grissom, spokesperson for the American Red Cross.
Sharon Nocerino, mother of two from Queens, New York, found that this worked wonders. "Having our sitter come over beforehand made my kids so much more comfortable with her before we left for the night," Nocerino says.
While she's there, give your sitter a tour of your home to increase her familiarity. Point out and explain the little things, like door locks, security systems, and smoke alarms. And make sure you pay her, of course, for her time.
You and your sitter should negotiate payment beforehand. Since hourly rates can vary, ask around to see what babysitters charge in your area.
If you want your sitter to do other chores, ask in advance. But if you have a baby, think twice. "You don't want her to be worrying about emptying the dishwasher," Varden says. "Encourage her to focus on your baby. You can always sweep the floor when you get home."
4. Make Your Exit
Before heading off for the evening, give the new sitter both your and your husband's cell phone numbers, along with the numbers of the local hospital, fire, and police departments, says Angela Mickalide, program director for the National Safe Kids Campaign.
And be sure to thoroughly explain your baby's schedule so your sitter will know when your little one needs to be fed and how he likes to be put to sleep. "Babies are creatures of habit, and you want yours to feel secure and comfortable in your sitter's care," Varden says. "If your baby always goes to sleep with a teddy bear in the crib, the bear should be in his crib."
Once you've settled in your child with his new babysitter, the best thing for you to do is relax and go. And while you're out, don't be surprised if all you talk about is your favorite subject -- your baby!
Rosemary Black, mother of six, is a writer in Pleasantville, New York.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2004.