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Babysitter Basics

In-home care, in which your child's caretaker comes to your home, is in many ways the most convenient for parents. In-home sitters range from trained nannies, who may have training in child development and first aid, to women who, although not trained formally, have had many years' experience caring for children, including their own. Or you might opt for an au pair, a young person, usually a woman in her early twenties, often from abroad, who lives with your family.

Finding a Sitter

You can advertise for a nanny or sitter in your local paper or on community bulletin boards, or you can register with an agency. Word-of-mouth, however, is often the best source. Ask everyone you meet who has had a sitter; someone whose child no longer needs full-time care may be delighted to have a sitter she values highly go directly to another family. Good sources for finding sitters who are no longer needed by a family include local nursery schools. Many parents post the names and numbers of their sitters who are soon to need new jobs.

The Interview

When you interview a prospective sitter, be prepared with your questions; have them written down, since it's easy to forget what you wanted to ask. Request proof of identity, current address, and names and phone numbers of references. Check the references, making sure to ask why the sitter is no longer working for that family and whether the former employers would hire the sitter again. Following are questions to ask the sitter that will help you evaluate her as a potential caregiver:

  • What kind of childcare experience has she had? Ask her to explain the best and worst experiences. The details can be telling.
  • What is her attitude about working mothers? Does she approve of mothers leaving their infants with others?
  • How does she handle issues of discipline? Be specific. Ask her what she would do if your baby cried for an hour or more. What if your toddler was defiant or inattentive to her? What if your child broke her watch or another prized possession?
  • How does she feel about TV? Would she watch TV herself while your child was playing or napping? Would she offer television as a regular activity?
  • How does she feel about the rules you've set for the children? If her philosophy differs from yours, can she comfortably follow your standards?
  • How much does she like to mingle with other sitters, parents, and kids? Does she enjoy taking the kids outdoors to play?
  • What does she know about good nutrition? Does she limit snacks to good-for-you foods?
  • Find out what she would do in an emergency such as your child suddenly becoming ill or a fire in the building.

For many parents, hiring a sitter is their first experience of being an employer, and most are unsure how to develop and strengthen the relationship with someone who is such an important person to the family. It's essential that you and the sitter agree on what the job entails. Have a written agreement spelling out the parameters of the job -- the hours, the pay, the benefits, when payments are made, the additional compensation for additional hours, vacations, etc.

To help the relationship run smoothly:

  • Realize that the sitter has a life of her own. You may think of your sitter as a part of your family, but she's got her own life and, perhaps, her own children, too. Invite her to join any family activities that are not part of her job, but don't feel rejected if she chooses not to join you.
  • Be mindful of your agreement. Don't expect your sitter to accept additional hours without additional pay or to alter her plans at the last minute to meet your schedule. Plan ahead and check any changes that you may need with her. Likewise, pay her on time and fully, including any overtime due.
  • Respect cultural differences and differences in beliefs and attitudes. Unless a difference impinges on your child's well-being, realize that exposure to the ideas of others can be a good thing for your child.
  • Act respectively toward her. Speak to her in the same tones you'd speak to another adult rather than speaking down to her. Don't correct her in front of the children. If an issue needs to be discussed, set aside time to talk to her privately and be willing to listen as well as to speak.

Take the following steps to assure your child's safety and your sitter's safety as well.

  • Take her through the entire house including the basement, and explain the security system, if you have one, in detail. Point out the location of anything she may need to know, such as the cabinet where you store extra lightbulbs.
  • Write down your address and directions to your house. This is crucial if she has to give instructions to help locate your home in an emergency.
  • Discuss your fire and other emergency evacuation plans. Be sure she understands that her first responsibility is the children, and that she should get them out immediately in the event of fire or to the safest place in the house during a storm. Go over the escape route, all exits from the house, and how the locks work, and point out potential hazards.
  • Show her the location of key light switches and circuit breakers or fuse boxes in the event of a power outage. Keep a box with a flashlight, battery-operated radio, candles, matches, blankets, and bottled water in the house and tell the sitter where it is.
  • Post emergency numbers, numbers where you and your spouse can be reached at all times, numbers of your child's doctor, numbers of trusted friends, neighbors, and relatives she can contact in an emergency.

Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the January 2001 issue of Parents magazine.