Our babysitter had summed up the previous evening with our kids in the usual way: Everything was fine. That’s why my five-year-old daughter’s question the next morning literally stopped me in my tracks.

"Was it bad that Jacob got lost?" she asked, referring to her three-year-old brother.

"Got lost? When?" I asked.

"Last night," my daughter replied. "We were playing hide and seek and Jacob let himself out the front door. We didn’t know he was gone, but then a man brought him back."

To this day I have no idea who the kind stranger was – my enquiries revealed it wasn’t any of our nearest neighbours. After my daughter’s revelation, we began looking for a new babysitter.

It wasn’t the incident itself that bothered me. I know my son; he might easily have "escaped" on my watch too. In fact, something similar had happened a few months earlier. What bothered me was that our babysitter hadn’t thought the incident important enough to mention. I knew she was desperately shy, but I could no longer ignore my uneasiness about how little she communicated to us.

Tips from experienced moms

Several weeks into my search for a new babysitter – with good communication skills near the top of my wish list – I began to realize that finding a suitable one is no small feat. If you have a dependable relative who lives nearby and loves to care for your kids, count yourself fortunate! Many parents aren’t so blessed! Here are some tips from experienced moms on how they found a babysitter for their kids:

Katrina W.: "When my children were under four years old I wasn’t comfortable leaving them in the care of a teenager. Instead, I traded babysitting time with a close friend – another mom. She would watch my children for a few hours, then I would reciprocate for her the following week. In later years I found teen babysitters through our church. I made a point of noting teens who were volunteering in the children’s ministry, then I’d ask the children’s pastor and other volunteers if they thought the person we had in mind would be a good fit for us."

Julie T.: "Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find a babysitter; ask friends, family and neighbours for recommendations. If you hear of a good babysitter who seems to be fully booked, contact her anyway and ask her if she has a sister or a friend who might be interested. And keep an eye on the kids in your neighbourhood. One of our favourite babysitters lived very close to us. As she passed by our house going to and from school she would always make a big fuss of our kids, and they loved her for it. When it came time to look for a babysitter it was a no brainer – of course we asked her first. When she ‘aged out’ of babysitting and was no longer available, we hired her younger sister."

Sylvia W.: "Once we were truly stumped for a babysitter. We had a family funeral to attend and were looking for a couple of girls who could care for all the children in our extended family. The nieces we normally hired to babysit were participating in the event. In the end I phoned the principal of our local high school and asked for recommendations. We hired two students who did a fabulous job of entertaining the kids. The girls were happy to do it because it helped them fulfil some of their community service hours required for graduation."

Before you hire your babysitter

Once you have a list of candidates, how do you decide on the best babysitter for your youngsters? Although your wannabe babysitter might be only 12 years old, they are expecting to be entrusted with the health and safety of a child – your child – so don’t shy away from conducting an in-depth interview with your potential babysitter. Of course, you won’t want to make it sound that formal. You can simply invite your candidate to drop by your home or meet them at a playground to chat about what you are looking for in a babysitter. In the end, however, you should be sure you are thoroughly acquainted with the person who will be caring for your kids.

Here’s a list of topics you’ll want to discuss with your babysitting candidate right up front:

  • Age – Your babysitter should be a minimum of 12 years old, although a mature 11-year-old may make a fine babysitter too. However, you will need to check the laws in your region. In some provinces it’s illegal for children under 12 years old to be left home alone, let alone care for other children. Remember too that age isn’t always a good indicator of maturity – a responsible 13-year-old may turn out to be more dependable than some 16 year olds.

  • Experience – Has your babysitter completed the Canadian Red Cross babysitting course or similar training provided by a provincial safety council? Can they provide references from other families they have worked for in the past? If not, ask for references from two adults who know them well – perhaps a teacher, music tutor or youth group leader. References are a valuable source of information, so don’t neglect to check them out. It’s a good idea to get to know your potential babysitter’s parents too. In a difficult or emergency situation your babysitter is likely to call them for help, so you’ll want to feel comfortable that they will provide appropriate direction.

  • Preferences – What ages has your babysitter cared for in the past? How many children do they feel they can manage? Do they typically provide care for children who are awake, or children who are already asleep? How do they entertain the children in their care? Will you allow them to use online entertainment? Do they understand the importance of supervising a child's access to the Internet? Will you permit them to leave the house with the children to visit a store or a playground? Are they accustomed to posting pictures of the children in their care on social media? Will you allow that for your own children? Are they permitted to drive your children in their own vehicle? Do they understand the safety requirements around age-appropriate car seats? Are they comfortable changing diapers if needed? (Later, you may want to supervise them at this task, to ensure they know how to do this safely.) Will they be expected to bathe the children regularly, or only in case of illness or a potty accident? (Again, you may wish to supervise your babysitter the first time.) Can your babysitter care for any special needs your child might have? What kind of discipline techniques have they used in the past? Have they ever spanked a child? At this point you’ll want to be very clear about what kind of discipline you will permit your babysitter to use with your children.

  • Duration and availability – How late can your babysitter stay out? Is it the same for weekdays and weekends? Are they usually available every day of the week?

  • Transportation – How will your babysitter arrive and return home? Are you able to provide transportation? (Note that you must never leave your children home alone while you run your babysitter home – not even for a few minutes.) If you cannot provide a ride home, will your babysitter’s parents commit to picking her up every time? Will you need to arrange a taxi from time to time? If so, who will pay for it?

  • Use of time – In today’s culture, it’s wise to ask your babysitter how they plan to use their time once your children are in bed. Do they usually do their homework or watch a movie? Do they bring their own movie? How will you both ensure the noise and content matter remains undetected by your children? Will you permit your babysitter to use your home computer, or is it time to add password protection? Are they permitted to chat to friends on the phone? Are they permitted to have friends, siblings or boyfriends drop by? Can they sleep while babysitting, or should they stay awake? Make sure you carefully explain your own expectations and standards on these issues during your discussion. (Personally I strongly recommend against letting your sitter's friends or acquaintances drop by. )

  • Rate of pay – Be clear about how much you will pay per hour. You can expect to pay a minimum of $10 per hour, but you should be prepared to pay more depending on how many children are involved and how demanding the task may be. A dependable babysitter is well worth the investment of a few extra dollars per hour.

During your discussion with any potential babysitter, listen to your instincts as well. Do they show common sense? Do they genuinely seem to like kids, or are they just looking for some quick cash?

Hopefully you’ll be impressed with your babysitter and ready to book a date. But don’t plan a night on the town just yet! First, arrange an afternoon or evening that leaves your babysitter in charge of the kids while you stick around, tending to work, gardening or a favourite hobby. This small investment of time yields big benefits: a chance for the babysitter to become acquainted with your kids and your rules, to locate supplies and to check with you about unanticipated issues that arise.

Before you leave the house

Don’t leave it to the last minute to prepare instructions and contact information for your new babysitter. You’ll need time to think through all the info they may need. Why not prepare a simple notebook of written instructions – one you can re-use again and again and update as required?

Each time you leave home, make sure your babysitter knows:

  • Your cell phone number
  • The name of your destination and the contact phone number
  • Emergency phone numbers for fire/police/ambulance, poison control and your family doctor, and your house address and postal code
  • The name, address and phone number of a trustworthy neighbour or nearby friend. Let them know that this is the person who can help if they feel overwhelmed, rather than the sitter calling over a friend whom you haven't vetted.
  • The keypad number for your house, or where to locate a spare key
  • How to disengage the security alarm
  • Where to find first-aid supplies and a fire extinguisher
  • Snacks available to the children and the babysitter
  • Any medication that may be needed and how to administer it
  • Any sleep or behaviour issues that have arisen recently and how to deal with them

For your part, make sure you have your babysitter’s cell-phone number, and also their parents’ phone number as a backup, before you head out on your date.

Don’t be a bad client

Babysitters exchange notes on clients too, so you’ll want to build a good reputation in your neighbourhood. Demonstrate your respect for your babysitter by following these guidelines:

  • It’s okay to ask your babysitter if they are willing to sleep over, but it’s not okay to insist on it.
  • If one of your children becomes ill, give your babysitter the opportunity to decline an impending appointment and graciously accept her decision.
  • Let your babysitter know when you expect to arrive home and always contact her to discuss any changes of plan.
  • Your babysitter is paid to care for your children, not your house. If you need housework done, hire a housekeeper as well!

© 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Last updated December 2019.

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