Wanted: The Perfect Babysitter

Sure, eating Mallomars and moldy cheese (hey, just scrape it off!) for dinner and watching Top Chef in your pajamas is fun, but couldn’t you and your guy use a real date? Like, one that’s actually outside your home? If only you had a responsible, loving sitter you could trust to leave your little peanut with. Help is here. In her new book, Love at First Sit, the founder and CEO of Sittercity.com tells how to get and keep a great babysitter.

How to find her
Eager sitters are living all around you — the key is identifying the best one for your needs. You can ask family and friends for recommendations, use a paper or electronic posting, or go online to Sittercity.com. Here’s how to write a successful ad that will entice worthy candidates:

Start with specifics about job. We are looking for a sitter to work Saturday nights in Newton, MA. Must be reliable and have experience with babies and toddlers. Our two active boys are ages 3 and 9 months.
Add in personality. Love of pizza and dinosaurs a plus!
Make your requirements reasonable. Please have two excellent references, two years’ paid babysitting experience, and your own transportation to our house. No smokers, please.
Weed out potential conflicts, like allergies. We have a dog. Will pay $12 an hour.
Don’t forget contact info. If interested, please contact Brenda at 555-555-4567 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, or e-mail Brenda@youraddress.com.

Checking her out
Whether you’re hiring the teenager across the street or someone with an early-education degree, it’s important to make sure a potential babysitter is well prepared for the job. Experience with children who are the same age as yours is a must: She should have worked for other families with infants or have younger siblings she helps take care of.

Always check references. Ask for the number or e-mail of a family for whom she’s sat. If she has experience only in her own home, talk to her parents and ask for a reference from a teacher or neighbor who knows her very well. For a list of questions to ask, go to sittercity.com/article/checking_references.html.

Get a sense of her reliability. Does she return your calls right away? Show up for the interview on time? Is she dressed neatly? Is she energetic? Does she come prepared with a list of questions? Don’t be put off by age: Some high school kids can be very professional!

Put her to the test. First have the potential sitter watch your baby while you’re home. You can show her your routines and will get an idea of how comfortable she is caring for an infant (not to mention how many times her cell phone rings).

Look out for warning signs. Take note if your sitter is ever defensive or evasive when you ask questions. Does she listen to you? She should realize that she is on a job with a client. Note any changes in her attitude, or a careless appearance, which could be signs of a more serious problem.

From burping to chasing:
What to ask a potential sitter at each baby stage

0 to 6 months

  • Do you know how to hold a young baby and change diapers?
  • Do you know how to bottle-feed and burp a baby?
  • How do you put a baby to bed to lower SIDS risk?
  • Do you know infant CPR?

6 to 12 months

  • Do you know what to feed a baby at this age?
  • Which foods are choking hazards?
  • How do you keep a crawling or cruising baby out of trouble?
  • Can you tell if a room is safely childproofed?

1 year and up

  • Do you know toddler CPR and first aid?
  • How do you entertain a toddler?
  • How do you handle a temper tantrum?
  • What will you do if my child won’t go to bed?

The going rate
The current national average is $10 an hour for high school students and $12 an hour for older babysitters. The closer you are to an urban area, the higher the fee. Check out Sittercity’s online rate calculator to determine the average wage in your town. These factors will also help you determine a rate:

Age. As sitters’ ages increase, so do experience levels, skills like training in CPR and first aid, and driving abilities.
Experience. Sitters who start young can rack up quite a lot of experience in a very short time. If she really knows her way around a changing table, she may charge a higher rate than her peers.
Number of kids. If you have twins or more than two kids, consider raising your rate by $1 to $2 an hour.
Type of job. For overnights or watching kids from two different families together, rates go up $1 to $2 an hour; for peak holidays, like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, sitters often get $3 to $10 extra an hour.

Wages where you are
So you’re hiring a high school senior with a couple years’ experience to watch your baby and toddler — how much should you pay? Here, the average hourly rates in five cities across the United States:

San Francisco $15.50
New York City $13.50
Atlanta $11.75
Cleveland $10.25
Sheboygan, WI $6

Keeping her happy
If you’ve taken the trouble to hire a sitter carefully, you want to ensure she falls in love with your family. Certain perks turn a just-okay babysitting job into a great one.

Feed her. Make sure the sitter knows she can eat meals with the children. Also, let her know what’s on- and off-limits in your kitchen, so she can grab a snack when she needs to. If she likes a certain flavor of ice cream, pick some up when you’re at the store.

Arrange transportation. Figuring out how to get to and from a job is often a headache for a sitter. If she doesn’t have access to a car, offer to pick her up and get her home. If she has to drive a long way, consider giving her gas money.

Be professional. Treat any issues your sitter raises with respect, even if they seem unimportant to you. Talk about it, so she feels like her concerns are being addressed.

Be on time. Come home when you say you will, or call to let her know that you will be a little late.

Be generous. A whopping 86 percent of parents in a recent Sittercity poll gave their sitters gifts. Don’t forget her birthday, and give her a bonus at holiday time (perhaps double her pay for an evening of work). And after she’s been working for you for a year, raise her fee by at least $1 per hour.

Family Care

Comfort and trust. Not having to build a relationship with an already-trusted loved one may do wonders to ease your mind.
Free babysitting! Most relatives will refuse to accept money, but consider offering something, or give a thank-you gift.
Bonding time. You’re giving your relative and your child a unique opportunity to grow close.

Lack of control. A paid, nonfamily sitter knows that you’re the boss. Without the exchange of money, the balance of power can be out of whack, making both of you more vulnerable to disagreements.
Low energy. If you use an older relative, she may have difficulty with a high-need baby or active play.
Generation gap. Older generations may have dramatically different parenting styles from yours, especially when it comes to feeding and safety issues.

From the book Love at First Sit, by Genevieve Thiers. Reprinted by arrangement with Sittercity.