5 Tips for Finding Great Childcare

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As a working mom, finding a babysitter that meets the needs of our family TOPS my list of priorities. When I first went back to work in October 2011 (after the birth of my first baby in July and a 12-week maternity leave), my son, Sam, began spending about 40 hours a week with “Miss Rita,” who provided childcare in her home for four other infants or toddlers.

Rita had been in the business of child care for more than 20 years and, in addition to coming highly recommended from a co-worker of mine whose son was currently staying with her, she had lots and lots of positive references. Almost immediately, I knew we had made the right decision when my sweet boy smiled every morning when I dropped him off and was still smiling when I picked him up at the end of the day.

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In addition, he quickly took to a more structured daily routine and started being more social and happier at home. Especially in the early months, I found so much comfort in knowing that Sam was in good hands. (I honestly don’t know that I could have gone to work every day if I wasn’t confident in that.) Plus, I was surprised to find how much I valued and appreciated Rita’s friendship and having someone else who knew and cared for my baby so well. It made it simple to ask her for advice, for help and bounce ideas off of her when I wasn’t sure about something.

My work situation changed when Sam was a little more than a year old, and — although we loved Miss Rita — we opted to look for a part-time sitter to watch him in our home instead that fall. We found “Ms. Jennifer” at the recommendation of another friend through Facebook, and in August 2012, she started keeping Sam four mornings a week. Over the past year, Jennifer has gone from working part-time to full-time us and — most importantly — become a huge blessing to and part of our family. My husband and I often remark that we honestly don’t know what we would do without her.

Now that we have been in the childcare market for just more than two years and have had two incredible experiences with different sitters, I feel “qualified” to offer a few tips for finding great childcare.

1. Focus on references and personal recommendations.

No matter how fancy her resume is or how great her paperwork sounds, you should rely most heavily on the references and recommendations of current and former clients. In an ideal world, you will be able to find a babysitter that has been personally recommended by a friend or co-worker of yours who has already had a good experience with this person. Simply knowing that someone you trust has trusted this person with their child is huge.

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Facebook and other social media outlets are a great place to start this kind of search. Beyond that, don’t be afraid to call numerous references before settling on a sitter. (Not having references would be a big red flag for me!) When you call, have specific questions you want to ask and don’t hold back.

2. Visit her at home/ meet her family/ get to know her on a personal level.

Especially if your child is going to be staying at her house, you want to feel very confident about the environment  she will be spending time in. Stop by for a visit unannounced. Ask for a full tour. Ask questions about family members and friends who might come by. Look at the photos on the walls, the books on the bookshelf, etc. etc. These things say a lot about a person.

Even if the sitter is going to be coming to your house, I think this is still an important step in the process. In fact, the deciding factor for my husband and I in choosing to work with Ms. Jennifer over a few other candidates was that she invited us to her house to meet her husband and kids. Simply seeing the way the kids treat people and the way she keeps house,was big for us. (It might seem intrusive or weird, but remember, this person is going to play a big role in your child’s life. Now is the time to be intrusive!)

3. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Even though the conversations may feel awkward at times, it is always best to get everything out on the table in the very beginning of your relationship. Be sure you talk about pay, vacation, sick leave, family rules, extra duties (like cooking or cleaning), and anything else — before you commit to anyone. You might even consider drawing up a basic contract and having both parties sign it (you can find these online for free) just to make sure everyone is on the same page. Later, consider asking your sitter to keep a notebook recording daily schedules, new activities, or anything else you might want to know. Being able to keep up with all of this will make you both feel better and more involved. Just like in any relationship, communication is key to success.

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4. Welcome her relationship with your child and build one of your own with her.

This mostly comes once you have decided on a sitter, but it is really a big one for me! Don’t try to compete with your sitter for your child’s love. Be glad that this person loves your child and that the feeling is mutual. Yes, she might see more “firsts” than you or be able to convince him to take a nap way better than you can, but I try to remind myself that the more people who care about my child, the better. If you are sad when you leave every day, or take offense when your child doesn’t want to go home from the babysitter’s house, chances are she will pick up on that and feel less comfortable with the sitter.

Take the time to build a relationship of your own with this person. Spending even just a few minutes at each drop off or pick up making small-talk and getting to know each other goes a long way in terms of everyone’s comfort level.

5. Read your child and trust your gut.

Apart from installing hidden cameras everywhere, trusting someone with your child every day requires a good bit of faith. We really don’t know how many hours the TV is on each day while you are gone, or how long your baby cried before she was picked up after nap. But, I do think you can tell a lot about paying attention to your child’s mood during drop-off and pick-up. Is she happy to see the sitter? Does she act like herself in the evenings at home? Ask your child to draw a picture (if she is old enough) of what she did all day. In addition to the obvious things, like physical symptoms of abuse, these are all important things to pay attention to and can help you gauge if a sitter is the right fit for your family. Most of all, always trust your gut.  You are the mama, and only you know best.

Elizabeth Chapman is a high school English teacher and a newish mom to a wild toddler. In her “free time,” she moonlights as a blogger at www.emyselfandi.com, where she chronicles her journey into adulthood and her attempts at salvaging a tiny bit of her former “Type A” self. 

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