Almost immediately after welcoming a baby into the world, every mom and dad discovers that parenthood is full of farewells. And of all the bittersweet partings you will face -- at school-yard gates, camp bunks, college dorm rooms-perhaps none is as anxiety-inducing as the first time you put your infant into the arms of a baby-sitter and head out for a little adults-only time.
Even parents whose babies regularly attend day care are susceptible to sitter jitters. "Day-care providers are viewed as professionals," points out Connie Harvey, a health and safety expert for the American Red Cross, in Washington, D.C. "But a regular baby-sitter may not be used to watching infants."
An overactive conscience only aids and abets this anxiety. "Ordinarily, an infant is in day care because parents have to work," Harvey says. "But they usually hire a sitter because they want to have fun. So a little voice keeps whispering, We'll never forgive ourselves if anything happens, because we could have stayed home."
And the smaller the baby, the bigger the potential guilt trip. "An infant can't tell you afterward if something went wrong," notes Sue Dunkley, president of the Plymouth, Minnesota-based New Horizon Child Care centers.
In short, it's up to you to make sure nothing does. Happily, that doesn't mean staying glued to your cell phone every minute you're away or, worse, never leaving the house at all.
What should you look for in a sitter? Above all, experience. "Age alone is not the decisive factor," Dunkley says. "A mature teen over 15, who's cared for baby siblings, is preferable to an older person who has never sat for an infant." Ask basic questions like "Do you know how to hold, feed, burp, and change a baby?" Look for someone who knows first aid and infant CPR or has taken a baby-sitter's training course (all offered nationwide by the Red Cross, the last for teens only).
Candidates with such qualifications, however, are often in short supply, and other parents may be reluctant to share the names of people they use. So search creatively. First, contact your local Red Cross chapter (listed in the White Pages under American Red Cross or on www.redcross.org) for referrals on recent graduates of its baby-sitting course. Also, approach people whose day jobs involve working with children or safety training. "Lifeguards, teachers, and camp counselors may all be well qualified," Harvey says.
And in every case, check your prospective sitter's references, and pay equal to or better than the going rate.
Once you've found someone you like, give her a chance to meet your child and learn how the household works. If time and money allow, this orientation should take the form of a supervised, paid trial. If not, at least ask the sitter to arrive an hour before your departure. Walk her through the house to familiarize her with the layout. Explain your family's fire-escape plan (if you don't have one, devise one now).
Demonstrate how to use appliances like the microwave and the air conditioner, and show her where to find the circuit breakers or the fuse box. And make sure she can operate your infant's gear, from the bouncy seat to the stroller. Also, be sure to leave a binder of important emergency-contact information for reference (see "Parents Alert: Make a List, Check It Twice," on right).
Then tell her your baby's preferences and habits, including such details as the way she likes to be held or the fact that she won't go to sleep unless her music box is playing.
Make your own preferences clear as well, especially on such matters as whether the sitter is allowed to have visitors or talk on the phone (experts discourage both); when and for how long he can watch TV or use the computer; and how far outside, if at all, he can take the baby.
Finally, don't forget to stock the fridge with a few snacks.
You're not out the door yet. Be sure to take these five extra precautions.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once wisecracked about his disappointment with some instant soup he'd made. "Then," he quipped, "I realized I'd forgotten to follow the final step of the directions: 'Enjoy!' "
He's on to something: You can hire the most responsible sitter in the world, but it will all be for nothing if you fret the entire time you're out.
Relax. Going a few hours without you is good for your child. "It gives her a chance to grow accustomed to different people," Kropp says. And it gives you a chance to get reacquainted with someone near and dear whom you haven't had much time for lately, like a friend, your spouse -- or yourself.