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11 things every first-time babysitter needs to know

Dec. 19, 2018

My friend Stephanie, who now lives in Sydney, Australia, once went to a babysitting job not realizing she’d have to accompany the little girl to the bathroom every time she went.

“The parents were already out the door,” Stephanie says. “She explained in her sweet little voice that she needed help wiping.”

While Stephanie handled it like a pro — with a smile! — situations like these can really catch a first-time sitter off guard, and you don’t want to get tripped up. Here’s where a little know-how can keep you sharp and able to handle almost any situation thrown your way. Make sure you’ve learned these important babysitter basics before your first solo gig.

1. Practice child care basics

You should be able to handle the basics of child care, which include supervising and monitoring child safety, preparing meals and snacks, helping kids keep good hygiene and bathroom hygiene, changing diapers of infants and toddlers, and organizing age-appropriate activities and playtime.

If you’re new to sitting, take a babysitting course that covers the basics, says Rachel Charlupski, founder of the Babysitting Company in Miami, Florida. Even better, she says, is paid or volunteer work in a group setting, such as a summer camp or preschool, where you may have required training and will most certainly get hands-on experience in caring for kids and handling common situations.

2. Know the ins and outs of baby care if you’ll babysit an infant

Babies need a lot of extra care, so if you’re going to be watching one, you have an extensive amount of learning to do.

“The first time I was left alone with a baby and her big brother, I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t stop crying,” says Stephanie, who admits she felt frazzled. “Finally I figured out that it was her diaper.”

Basic baby care knowledge — including how to change a diaper, how to bottle feed, what to do when a baby cries and safety dos and don’ts — is important to understand if you’re sitting for an infant. So you shouldn’t babysit an infant until you have hands-on experience with babies.

3. Learn the house rules and follow them

Before you start your babysitting gig, know the major rules of the home in which you’ll be sitting. Write them down so you have a sort of cheat sheet to refer to while you’re on the job, says Elizabeth Malson, president of Amslee Institute in Sarasota, Florida. These are details you should go over in advance with the parents when you interview for the job. They should include:

  • What the kids are and aren’t allowed to eat

  • What activities are forbidden

  • What time they should go to bed

If you’re unsure of or wondering about any of the rules, ask the parents before they head out the door. You can even make a call a few days before the job to ask anything you’ve been wondering.

4. Be respectful at all times

“Babysitters should not only have respect for the rules of the home but also for family diversity,” says Sidra Ellison, an instructor for Red Cross babysitting and child care courses in Springfield, Massachusetts. “We all live in different ways.”

This could be everything from cultural practices to foods they eat to preferred behaviors, like taking shoes off at the door. Show respect for the way the family does things.

“I really emphasize following the parents’ routine as a guideline for babysitters,” says Leanne Hoekstra, a babysitting course instructor and author of “The Ultimate Babysitting Course Manual.”

5. Get some safety training

“What I personally recommend for every babysitter is to take a class in first aid and adult and pediatric CPR/AED,” says Ellison.

We all know accidents and injuries can happen — and they certainly will, no matter how conscientious the caregiver. You want to be able to ably handle any cuts and scrapes, as well as more serious problems, like choking. Plus, this training will help you identify potential hazards. For example, if the family has a pool or hot tub, you’ll want to keep the kids away from it to prevent a drowning accident.

6. Know the emergency contacts and procedures

You should definitely have the kids’ parents’ numbers, and, in case of emergency, you should also have a list of every number you might possibly need to use.

“The list of phone numbers should include work and cell phones for both parents and other trusted adults who could step in and help,” Malson says. “Also keep numbers for the Poison Control Helpline and the children's doctors easily accessible.”

Also, “know when to call 911,” says Hoekstra. “That includes if the child is unconscious, not breathing or having difficulty breathing. In any situation that makes you uncomfortable or that you can’t handle on your own, do not hesitate to call 911.”

For this kind of extreme emergency, have the address of the home written down, so it’s at the ready in case you do ever need an ambulance or fire rescue. Put all this info on the same cheat sheet where you’re writing the house rules.

7. Put age-specific knowledge about kids into play

How you interact with and care for a child can be dependent on age. An infant, a toddler, a preschooler and an elementary-aged child will each communicate differently and have different needs.

“It’s important to know what kids are capable of at this age, so you have a general sense of activities you can do with them,” says Ellison. “I recommend a babysitter brings along a kit with age-specific books or toys for the kids… Having the right items for the age can make you the coolest babysitter on the block.”

Understanding the different ages and stages can also help you identify and avoid household dangers for younger children and babies, such as open dresser drawers or small items that could be choking hazards. Here’s where taking a class and also having experience working with children will give you tons of know-how. You might also consider reading a book on child development, such as “Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5,” which is written for parents but also an excellent reference for caregivers, and/or a babysitting-specific read such as “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Babysitting.”

8. Know how to prevent and handle common kid behaviors

When it comes to caring for kids, experience and practice in a child care course also can help prepare you for sticky behavioral situations that may arise.

“In our course, we give sitters tools to work with on common behavior issues, so they’re prepared before they go,” says Ellison.

A few that tend to throw sitters for a loop:

  • Separation anxiety: “I was babysitting a 2-year-old whose whole family left,” says Megan in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “She stood at the door, screaming and crying for over an hour and hated me because she thought they were behind the door and I was keeping her from them. I finally just started making dinner, and she wandered over for tear-filled mac and cheese.”

  • Bedtime battles: Amie, a former babysitter in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, says one of her biggest struggles was when a toddler boy hid behind a couch to avoid bedtime. She had to call her own mother to help her get him out.

  • Trouble with transitions: Something as seemingly simple as putting on a jacket and shoes to play outside can quickly turn into a power struggle, says Ellison.

Preventing and dealing with difficult behaviors be easier if you understand how to communicate effectively with children.

“We teach sitters to give kids choices,” says Ellison. “If you really need them to get their shoes on because you need to be somewhere, instead of telling them ‘Put on your shoes,’ you may be more successful asking them if they want to wear the red ones or the blue ones. Learning how to talk to children appropriately can just really help the whole day go more smoothly.”

9. Employ great decision-making skills

There will be problems on the job, and many of them will be unforeseen.

“I had a toddler that got accidentally locked in a room with one of those pinhole door knobs,” says Megan. “She wasn’t tall enough to reach the handle, so I had to search the whole house for something to stick in the hole to let her out of the room. She thought we were playing hide and seek, and I was really bad at it!”

Ellison says the Red Cross babysitting course also talks through decision-making skills with a FIND model:

  • Figure out the problem.

  • Identify possible solutions.

  • Name the pros and cons.

  • Decide on the best solution.

This model can help you make decisions in almost any scenario you encounter, in babysitting and in the rest of your life, as well.

10. Communicate effectively with your family and your employers

If you’re a minor, make sure your parents or guardians are on board with all aspects of your babysitting plans. This can include how you’re getting to and from the jobs, how far away they are and how comfortable they are with the families you’re sitting for and the hours you’ll work.

And, of course, you should be clear on the expectations of the family you’re sitting for. Ask as many questions as you can before the gig begins, and you’ll be better equipped for handling the job. Always ask how much you’ll be paid for the gig and if you can arrive early to acclimate to the home and prepare for the job.

11. Be ready to handle special and unexpected situations

“Ask if there are any pets or concerns like allergies and special needs,” says Hoekstra.

It’s important to know the ins and outs of what the job will entail, and you don’t want to be blindsided by an allergy attack or a Great Dane you didn’t realize you’d have to feed and walk while caring for the kids.

Knowing as much as you can in advance will make you more confident and able to handle situations, both big and small. And even with preparation, there are bound to be surprises along the way.

“Once a friend and I babysat three kids and one of the kiddos threw up, which triggered my friend who then threw up!” says Amy in Manlius, New York.

She adeptly handled the kids while her friend was sick in the bathroom. An experienced babysitter knows not to panic in situations like this.

“It really is a responsibility to take care of someone so young; so many things could go wrong,” says Hoekstra.

That’s where your prep pays off, as well as your personality and your ability to stay cool under pressure.

Read next: How to get a teen babysitting job

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