When it comes to picking a babysitter, the thought process for parents usually goes something like this: "The teen next door seems so pleasant, well-scrubbed and responsible. I bet she'd make a great babysitter."
Maybe — but then again, maybe not.
Perhaps it's the temporary nature of babysitting that makes people more willing to go on appearances. After all, we're talking about hiring someone to stay with your child for a few hours while you go out to dinner, to a wedding, or somewhere else you can't (or don't want to) bring children.
Luckily, most of the time it works out. But sometimes it doesn't. And the truth is, you shouldn't trust your child's well-being to luck.
So here's some advice to help you choose the best babysitter for your child.
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What Do You Need in a Babysitter?
There are some important questions you need to answer honestly before you hire a babysitter:
- How difficult is it to care for your children? There's a lot you may take for granted and think is easy at this point. But it might not be easy for a babysitter. For example:
- Does your child have a health problem that could cause him to get sick quickly and require medication? Asthma is a common example. If so, you want a babysitter who can recognize signs of illness and be mature enough to react appropriately.
- Do you have an infant or toddler? They need a different degree of maturity and attentiveness from their caretaker than older children.
- Does your child have behavioral issues? Be honest with yourself. I'm not necessarily talking juvenile delinquent here. If your child tends to be defiant, won't talk to anyone who isn't immediate family, or is going through a major tantrum phase, you will need to prepare both your child for the new babysitter and your babysitter for your child.
- What will you expect the babysitter to do? Different jobs require different babysitting skills. Will the kids mostly be asleep and all the babysitter needs to do is call "911" for a fire or home invasion? Or are you asking her to entertain your children in the afternoon, cook dinner, give them baths and put them to sleep?
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Start the Search
Once you've figured out what you need in a babysitter, you're ready to start looking in earnest. Here are some ideas and issues to think about:
- Ask around. Start by finding out who your neighbors and friends use to babysit.
- Consider the pros and cons of older versus younger babysitters.
- Babysitters age 16 and older are more likely to be experienced and able to handle making meals or giving baths. They may even be able to drive. But they are less likely to be available, more likely to have friends (or a boyfriend) over and, in my opinion, otherwise get into trouble.
- Younger babysitters are more likely to be available and enthusiastic. But they tend to lack maturity. A recent study showed that 11- to 13-year-olds knew the basics of safety information, but 40% of those interviewed had left children unattended, and 20% had opened the door to a stranger.
- Look for babysitters who have taken some courses to prepare them, such as CPR or first aid classes. It's especially helpful if they have taken a babysitting course, which may teach them about child development, what to do in emergencies, and how to change diapers. (The American Red Cross offers a Babysitter's Training course.)
- Check references (if the person didn't already come recommended). If you're considering a younger teen, talk to the teen's parent, who may have the best sense of the child's readiness to babysit.
- Do a dry run. Pay the prospective babysitter to come over and watch your children while you do chores or tackle that household project you never can do because you have children underfoot (like that room you've been dying to paint). You'll get to watch the babysitter in action — and get some work done too!
- Set down some rules and guidelines, such as, "Never leave the children unattended" and "Don't open the door to a stranger." Common sense can never be taken for granted — at any age.
- Get reviews from the kids. Ask your kids lots of detailed questions about the babysitter. The kids' favorite may not necessarily be your favorite. (My favorite babysitter as a kid was the one who ignored our bedtime and let us eat the pizza her friends brought over.) But you want a sitter who makes your children feel comfortable and happy.
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One Last Hint
As a former babysitter myself, little things can make a big difference when it comes to keeping a good babysitter. Be pleasant and friendly, have snacks, always call if you are running late, and pay generously (especially if you were late). The good babysitters tend to be in high demand. A few extra smiles (or dollars) can go a long way toward keeping you high on the Favorite Family list!
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.