Adventures in Babysitting

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Whether it's for a work-related meeting, a night at the movies with friends or a "date night" with your partner, sooner or later every parent will find themselves looking for a babysitter. And while trusted friends or family members might be your first choice, they're not always available. Eventually you'll need to rely on someone else. When's the best time to start looking? Now: Before you need someone.

Finding a Sitter Who Fits

It takes time and a bit of effort to find a qualified sitter you like and trust, but your reward for having one – or even a few different ones – is the comfort that you've left your child in capable hands.

Just like finding a doctor or a job, the key to finding a good babysitter is networking. Tell everyone you know that you are looking for a responsible sitter. Talk to friends, neighbors and other parents to get their recommendations. Inquire at local high schools, colleges, and nursing schools. Read the bulletin boards at those places where families tend to go, such as churches, coffee shops, supermarkets or the local YMCA. If your child is in daycare or preschool, see if any staff members are interested in additional work.

There's no perfect age for a babysitter, but if you're looking for a neighborhood youth to provide occasional child care, you'll probably want one who is between 12 and 15 years old. Sitters in this age group are often mature enough to be responsible and are still excited about the prospect of babysitting. They also don't have the busy social life and distractions that older teenagers often do.

Once you've compiled a short list of potential sitters, make it a point to talk to each one (and their parents as well). You'll learn a lot about their capabilities, maturity and attitude by bringing them into your home to meet you and your children. Treat the discussion as seriously as you would a job interview – and expect her to do the same.

Be sure to consider the following:

Experience – Not only do you want your sitter to be experienced, but you'd like her to also have experience with children near the same age as yours so she'll know how to interact, entertain and care for yours.

Level-headedness – Emergencies require a level-head, and you want a calm sitter when it comes to your child's safety. Find out how well she thinks on her feet by asking some "what if" questions such as: "What would you do if the smoke detector goes off?"

Training – Many communities offer babysitting training courses as well as first aid and CPR classes that help sitters learn the basics. Inquire if your sitter has had training or offer to pay for the class if she is willing to enroll.

Patience, responsibility and maturity – Asses these qualities by checking references and asking specific questions of the parents who've hired her to baby sit before. Questions such as "How did she handle stressful situations?" or "Did she arrive on time?" will provide tremendous insight into the sitter's capabilities.

Comfort level – Take a "test drive." Have the sitter come over to watch your children one day while you are still home. You'll have the opportunity to see how she interacts with them and how comfortable they are with her.

Cover All the Bases

Once you've found a sitter you trust to properly care for your kids, your job is not yet over. To ensure the sitter is prepared, familiarize her with your home, specifics about your children and emergency information. Leave detailed instructions in plain sight and be sure they include the following:

Once you've found a babysitter that your whole family is comfortable with, it's a win-win for all parties involved. Your kids will look forward to a fun night with their sitter, and you can look forward to a fun night out without worry.

Can Your Child Be Home Alone?

There's no hard-and-fast rule for when a child is old enough to stay home alone. Each child is different, and the decision to leave him or her alone will depend greatly on how mature they are and how comfortable you both are with the prospect.

Some questions to consider before letting your youngster stay home alone:

Even if you believe your child is ready to handle being home alone, it's best to try a few short trial runs first. Leave for a few 15-minute periods at first and then gradually increase the amount of time until you are both completely comfortable. You can also enroll your child in a basic first aid course or latchkey kids class (often offered through a hospital, library or local YMCA) that will teach her ways to remain safe and deal with a variety of situations. The more confident she is, the more comfortable you'll both be.