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What to look for in a babysitter: Types, traits and responsibilities

Nov. 27, 2018

The word babysitter can mean different things to different people. To some, it’s a high school student who watches their children on date nights. To others, it’s the experienced college student who’s there with their children for a few hours after school each day. Or maybe it’s the caregiver you rely on to get the kids to school a few days a week. Regardless, babysitters can be an integral part of your child care team, especially for those who don’t need the full-time support of a nanny.

Before you begin the search for the perfect babysitter, it’s important to know exactly what type of care provider you’re looking for because different types of sitters can offer different things in terms of experience, qualifications and even availability.

Here’s what to know before you get started on your search for a babysitter.

Types of babysitters

The perfect babysitter can be anyone, from a neighbor down the street to an experienced former educator you found in a local community group. But, says Suzie Zeldin, co-owner and director of operations at Smartsitting, the right kind of sitter depends on what your family’s specific needs are, so you should have an idea of what different types of sitters can offer.

High school students

Babysitters in this age group are good matches for weekend and summer jobs. While they are typically the youngest of the available sitters, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less capable. Ideally, a high school sitter will have participated in a training course or gotten their CPR certification, or at least have experience working with kids or other families. They should also live nearby, as some in this age group may not have their own transportation or a driver’s license.

College students

Depending on their schedules, college students may have more flexibility than other kinds of sitters, though they may be unavailable during summer or for certain holidays. Typically, college-aged sitters have more experience than high school sitters. For this reason, they may require a higher hourly pay rate. But as a bonus, many sitters in this age group are drawn to caregiving because they are training for future careers in education or early childhood development, meaning they may possess extra knowledge of how to interact and engage with children in meaningful ways.

Adult sitters

There are many kinds of adult sitters. Some may be parents themselves who are looking to make income by caring for additional children. Others may be retired or former teachers, grandparents or even former day care providers who are making a pivot into personalized care. While age implies more experience, it is still important to verify that adult sitters have valued qualifications, like CPR training, just as you might with a younger sitter. An adult sitter may charge more, especially if they have training and experience in child-related fields. That said, they are also more likely to have availability during mornings and afternoons when other sitters who have school or extracurricular activities are not available.

Traits to consider when looking for a sitter

For Katherine Martinelli, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, finding a new babysitter for her 1- and 4-year-old kids came down to personality, perhaps even more so than the sitter’s other qualifications, she says.

“The woman I decided to contact mentioned specifically that she has experience working with multiple kids of various ages, which is important to me,” she says. “But even more than that, she just seemed really caring and fun. Within minutes of arriving, she was playing with both kids and they absolutely love her. There are zero tears when we leave and we come home to both kids asleep. We adore her, and I think the fact that she's enthusiastic and energetic is key… Other sitters spent the whole time talking to me, or waited for cues from the kids, but she just jumped right in at their level.”

While each babysitter is unique, Martinelli’s story hits on a few key traits and qualities most sitters should have:

  • Enthusiasm: The babysitter should genuinely enjoy caring for children and approach their work with an energy that shows they’re truly interested in the kids in their care.

  • Initiative: The babysitter may not know the ins and outs of your household right away, but they should be able to jump right in, get the children engaged and anticipate their needs.

  • Playfulness: The sitter should possess the ability to play and knows how to keep kids entertained. Martinelli says her sitter mentioned during the initial hiring process that she loves setting up scavenger hunts, doing science experiments and making up plays.

  • Responsibility: No matter how much fun they’re having, Martinelli’s sitter still gets the kids in bed on time and sticks to the routine. Ultimately, parents need to know their children are in good hands, so the ability to stick to rules and routines is important.

  • Professionalism: Babysitting, even in more casual scenarios, is a real job and should be taken seriously. The sitter should be reliable, dedicated and have experience. “They should understand the job they’re doing and not just treat it like a side gig where they can just make some extra cash,” says Zeldin.

  • Accountability: The babysitter should show up on time, honor commitments and value the responsibility they have to your family. “Even if it is a part-time babysitting job, at the end of the day, families rely on their babysitters,” says Zeldin.

Basic duties of babysitters

Babysitters are primarily hired to care for and entertain children, so they don’t typically take on additional duties, like cooking or household cleaning, that might fall under the purview of a full-time nanny. Still, says Zeldin, it’s important to have a clear idea of what duties you do need your sitter to take on and to communicate those right off the bat.

“We always tell families to spend time actually thinking about what it is that they want this person to do and to gain a little bit of understanding about what things are normal for babysitters to do and what might fall in the ‘this is kind of extra’ column,” she explains.

Typical babysitter duties include:

  • Playing with children

  • Doing simple meal or snack prep and clearing the dishes

  • Cleaning up play areas

  • Changing diapers

  • Helping with potty training

  • Preparing bottles or baby food

  • Getting kids ready for bed

Extra babysitter duties may require a higher pay rate and could include:

  • Transporting children to and from activities or school

  • Helping with homework or tutoring

  • Preparing complex or highly specific meals and snacks (such as, in the case of a food allergy or intolerance, for which it may necessary to find a sitter with additional experience)

  • Doing any chores beyond basic clean-up of the areas and items used

  • Coming up with unique play ideas or educational activities

If your children require highly specialized care, it could be that a professional nanny is better suited to your needs. In any event, Zeldin says communication is the key to ensuring your sitter understands what’s expected and feels capable of being able to perform in their role.

“The most important thing is not to blindside your sitter with a list of responsibilities that they didn’t know about, and then they come into your home and they feel like the setup is different than what was originally communicated,” she explains.

Safety and child care training to look for

While safety training and special certifications are not required of babysitters, knowing a caregiver is trained in how to handle an emergency provides great peace of mind to most parents. Here are some safety courses and certifications to look for.

Choking and CPR

Dr. Ed Kulich, a board-certified concierge pediatrician at Kids Housecalls, says typically caregivers should have some form of Basic Life Support (BLS) training. This training includes CPR, what to do in cardiac emergencies and how to clear obstructed airways (choking).

“If you have older kids, the caregiver needs to have adult CPR, as well, because if you have a kid who is 11 or 12, those kids are big, and they’re essentially the same size as an adult,” Kulich says.

Courses offered by the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association will cover this training. If a babysitter says they’ve received this training, you should ask to see a copy of their certification so you can verify that it is current, as trainees must be recertified every two years.

Infant and child care training

The American Red Cross offers courses in babysitting basics and advanced childcare. These courses include the CPR and emergency training mentioned above, but also cover topics dealing with child behavior and discipline, child development and basic care for children of all ages. Sitters as young as 11 can participate.

Water safety training

Particularly if you’re hiring a summer babysitter or have a pool, it may be a good idea to find a sitter with water safety training. Courses offered by the American Red Cross cover possible dangers near water and how to respond in an emergency.

Read next: Babysitter interview questions every family should ask

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