Parenting & Relationships

Adventures in Finding a Babysitter

Written by Angela Schurhoff

It’s December. Party season. You’ve opened the evites. You’ve found the perfect little black dress. Something’s missing. Oh, yeah, a babysitter. Wait, it’s December. Party season. Your usual babysitter was booked weeks ago. Your parents are MIA. What to do? You’re in a pickle and you need help.

Let’s face it, finding a good sitter can be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. You think you’ve finally found one and then, poof, she’s off to college or takes a job at The Gap, leaving you in the lurch. Aside from attending holiday soirees, any happily married couple worth their salt will tell you regular date nights are essential to keep the flame lit, and busy moms need grown-up time to keep from turning into Momzilla. Any way you spin it, sitters are highly coveted commodities.

If a babysitter is on your holiday wish list, read on for tips on how to find a good one (or two or three), how to keep one and what to look for when hiring someone to look after your precious angels (or little devils.)

Find them

Your parents live out of state. You are new in town. Your regular babysitter is now a freshmen at UC Berkeley. There are many reasons why you may not have an arsenal of sitters at your disposal. Although you may be tempted to run down the street after the first teenager that passes your house, try these options first.

  • Friends and neighbors
    The obvious choice is to ask a friend or neighbor who has children who she uses (I say she because I have never heard of any of my daddy friends who have taken on this task.) This option can fail depending on who you ask. Some people are stingy when it comes to loaning out a good sitter. They will happily lend you a cup of sugar or their fine china, but as soon as you ask for a sitter recommendation, they clam up or won’t return your calls. You may have to promise this friend to check with them each time you want the sitter to avoid scheduling conflicts.
  • Mother’s clubs
    If you’re new to town, check to see if there is a local mother’s club you can join. Usually after paying a small membership fee you are given access to area play groups, club subgroups, chat rooms and classified ads. This is one of the greatest resources a mother can tap. I joined a Bay Area mother’s club when I moved here eight years ago. Through the group, I met one of my best friends, signed my daughter up for a play group, joined a book club, wine club and a bunco club. I also received valuable info about babysitters, preschools and programs for young children. A couple of my friends also found nannies through the club.
  • At the gym
    A lot of gyms have daycare included with the membership. The care providers are usually pre-screened and have experience with children of varying ages. Be prepared to pay more for their services. It may not be cost-effective to use them on a regular basis, but you might want to add them to your contacts to use in a pinch.
  • At church
    Most churches have youth groups full of young adults who would love nothing more than to babysit. (Can I get an Amen?) Check with your church’s youth pastor. Ask, and you shall receive.
  • At school
    Preschool teachers aren’t paid what their worth. Although it pains me to say it, this works to your advantage. Although they may not advertise it, many teachers and classroom aides moonlight as babysitters to make ends meet (I did when I was a preschool teacher.) How thrilled would your children be to see Miss So-and-So show up to play at their house? Also, it may be worthwhile to check the student employment office at the local high schools or colleges.

Kid swap
If you have a few friends with kids in town try these ideas on for size.

Trade-off with a friend. I made one of my closest friends after I stalked her at my oldest daughter’s elementary school. She was dropping her eldest son off a few classrooms away. Her youngest son, whom I recognized from the same preschool class my little one attended, was tagging along beside her. I practically knocked her down in my excitement to meet. I introduced myself in giddy anticipation of the arrangement I was hoping to make. It went exactly as I had planned. We were both exhausted by the effort it took to get our children where they needed to be every day. We swapped numbers and a week later we started swapping kids. For the entire year we carpooled to preschool. Once a week we alternated keeping one another’s kids for an hour or two before school.

The moral of this story: Don’t be afraid to reach out. Chances are other moms around you are just as stressed as you are.

Have a babysitting party. Here’s how it works: One set of parents hosts all the kids in your friend posse while the others go out. The host changes monthly, weekly or whenever your group decides. This option is easy on the wallet and eliminates the ability for your child to whine about never getting a play date.

Share a sitter. Same premise with a slight twist. One set of parents loan out their house for the evening, but instead of staying put with the kids, they line up a sitter or two to supervise the motley crew. Everyone chips in to pay the sitters. Typically the sitters and parents agree to a flat rate for the night.

If all else fails, the following fee-based websites can provide information about pre-screened babysitters in your town. Some of the sites also promise to help find nannies, pet sitters and tutoring services.

Hooray, you found one! Now what?

  • Check references
    Regardless of how you find a sitter, it’s always good practice to ask for references. Friends of mine thought they had found the perfect candidate to watch their toddler at their local church. She sat for them on multiple occasions before she relayed that she had been committed to a mental health facility for an eating disorder and attempted suicide the year before. The parents opted not to have this sitter return. A quick reference check may have turned up this information sooner and saved everyone time and embarrassment.
  • Make introductions
    Don’t wait to try someone new the night of the big New Year’s Eve bash you’ve been looking forward to for weeks. Get Baby and babysitter together at least once beforehand to see if they mesh, otherwise you may be getting a phone call just as the champagne is being poured.
  • Be upfront about expectations
    Have a frank discussion with your sitter about what you expect to happen during her time with your children. I learned this the hard way. My husband and I returned home one evening after a romantic night out to find our children bouncing off the walls and dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Nothing kills a nice wine buzz faster than having to put sugar-filled children to bed late at night and scraping macaroni and cheese off a plate that’s been sitting around for hours. At the very least I expect my sitters to pick up what was played with while we were gone, load the dishwasher and have the kids tucked in bed by the time we get home. I assumed all sitters knew this. You know what they say about assuming. Now I lay it on the line when I hire someone. Voila! No more surprises.
  • Decide on payment
    All sitters are not created equal. A good sitter is worth her weight in gold. Once you find one, make sure to hold on to her. How? Pay her what’s she’s worth. I know it’s hard to hand out a wad of bills after you’ve already dropped a bundle on dinner and drinks, but think of it as an investment in your mental health. An appointment with a shrink or marriage counselor will set you back a lot more than a night out now and then. Sitters in my neck of the woods get paid anywhere from $8-$15 an hour. Your 13-year-old neighbor who has to be walked home before 10pm would probably be happy with $8 an hour, where as your college grad who can stay up past midnight and has her own car may expect more. I always tip a little if I am later than I said I would be, or if I have them prepare dinner and clean up. Remember, being stingy with money does not encourage loyalty.

Yes, finding a sitter can be a daunting task indeed. Unfortunately, Nanny McPhee isn’t going to materialize on your doorstep just in the nick of time. You have to reach out to friends, ask a lot of questions and spend some cash. And you’d better hurry up. After all it’s December. Party season. You’ve opened the evites. You’ve shopped for the perfect outfit. Something’s missing. What to do? Oh yeah, call the babysitter you found after reading this article.

About the author

Angela Schurhoff

Angela Schurhoff is a freelance writer and busy mother of two. Besides volunteering in the classroom, coordinating play dates and mother-daughter book clubs, shuttling kids between soccer and ballet lessons, and navigating through her recent divorce, Angela tries to find time to write.

This Florida-born California transplant has recently returned to her writing career after a nine-year hiatus raising babies. She has written for the Sacramento News & Review and Citysearch.com.

Some of Angela's future aspirations include hiking Machu Picchu, baking the perfect bundt cake, waking up feeling rested and writing a best-selling novel.

She currently lives in the Bay Area with her two daughters.