Many parents face the difficult question: Whom do you trust to watch your children when you're not around? The ideal caregiver is competent, trustworthy and fun — and can seem to be the stuff of legends. You may not find Mary Poppins, but local families dwelling outside of Fantasyland have multiple resources for ensuring that the people you entrust with your children are capable and reliable.
Dr. Diana Peterson, a pediatrician at Ochsner Health System and a mother to twin 11-month-old girls, credits word-of-mouth referrals as the ultimate resource for parents. Oftentimes, fellow parents only recommend a babysitter if they've had a positive firsthand experience and found the caregiver to be "good and trustworthy," she says.
Many families turn to the Internet to widen their access to experienced caregivers. Sites like Care.com and Sittercity.com focus on connecting babysitters with the families who need them, and Craigslist has an entire section devoted to domestic jobs. When posting an ad seeking a sitter, be specific about your requirements — what you pay hourly, whether you prefer a college-educated sitter or someone younger — so applicants know whether they fit your criteria, potentially saving you the time and energy of wading through a sea of not-quite-right candidates.
Peterson recommends taking precautions before introducing someone you found online into your family mix.
"It's always a good idea to meet in person with someone from the Internet beforehand," she says, and don't be timid in asking about their child care experience, their attitudes toward children and where their comfort zone lies in terms of ages and and number of children.
"Multiple ages at the same time can be kind of overwhelming," says Julie Smith-Price, director of the Newcomb Children's Center (NCC). "Ask for three or four references, and check them out."
Smith-Price also recommends keying in to a caregiver's personality traits to see if his or her disposition will mesh well with your child's. "Make sure they have a positive attitude toward children and play," she says. "Find out how they feel about kids being active and if they're the kind of person who will engage instead of just sitting around on the phone or watching TV."
Peterson says that as a parent, you should "go with your gut." When selecting a caregiver for her twins, she invited a potential nanny to spend a day with the family while Peterson was there. "It wasn't like I was watching her all day, but I was able to observe her and to guide her a little bit in the way that we did things in our house," she says. This way you can catch on early to elements that need adjusting and ensure there's not a disconnect between the way things are when you're home — and how they're done when you're not.
Parents still wary of the Internet can opt for a background check — many of the aforementioned sites offer the option — or use a local service like Agenda for Children, which keeps files on caregivers and helps match a family with the right person or agency. Mommy Mixer, a national company, hosts regular events designed to bring parents with young children and college students or recent grads together in one room. Sitters have a chance to talk with parents and exchange phone numbers, and both parties get a feel for each others' personality and dynamics in a neutral setting.
Parents with younger children also may consider group child care like the NCC offers for ages 1 through 5. Smith-Price says she believes a group setting offers benefits for a child's development.
"Children have an opportunity to socialize with other kids their own age, work through problem situations and use language and communication skills," she says. Even the games at the NCC are educational; something as simple as a group playing with building blocks is actually teaching kids mathematics, physics and balance skills, she says.
When you find a sitter, be sure to leave contact numbers and specific directions regarding anything that may need to be addressed while you're away.
"Leave a reliable number, of course, but also make sure to keep [the sitter's] number with you as well," Smith-Price says. If something unusual happens and your child needs to take medicine while you're not there, check with the caregiver beforehand and make sure he or she is comfortable administering it and leave detailed written instructions.
Nowadays, CPR and First Aid certification are required for people working in child care centers like the NCC, Smith-Price says, but people who babysit in private homes also can get certified through training programs at almost any local health care institution. She says Safesitter.org, a physician-founded site specializing in basic medical training for young sitters, is a reliable way to find CPR classes. Peterson says he also puts a high priority on having a "basic knowledge" of pediatric illnesses, and a good understanding of when an issue requires more serious medical attention.
Above all, Peterson says, clear expectations are the crux of a successful relationship between a parent, an outside caregiver and a child. "You have to be able to trust the person," she says.