If you're looking for a nanny, be thankful you live in the Seattle area and not New York. In Manhattan, "nanny poaching" is real and common, according to my friend who is a mother of twins. She tells stories of other mothers stalking working nannies at parks in hopes of luring them into their employ. Think "Desperate Housewives" and "Nanny Diaries."

But no matter where you live, finding exactly the right person to come into your home is a still challenge, especially since parents often undertake the search when they are tired and emotionally drained. While any decision involving your child's care is naturally nerve-wracking, it is possible to minimize your anxiety by approaching the hiring process in a smart, methodical way.

1. Be realistic about the cost: The first consideration is the simplest: Can your family afford a nanny? Salaries for full-time, permanent nannies in the Seattle area usually run between $2,500 and $3,500 a month. Tack on an additional 10 percent for payroll taxes. Then pencil in riders to your car insurance, possible assistance with the nanny's health insurance and other benefits such as cell phone plans. If you hire your nanny through an agency, upon placement the company will charge a percentage of the nanny's gross income.

2. Hire an agency or look for your own: If your household budget can indeed support a full-time nanny, the issue then becomes how to go about hiring the best possible person for your family. Should you place ads in the newspaper or on the Internet, or should you work through an agency?

In addition to performing criminal background checks, reputable agencies say they go to great lengths to cherry-pick the best candidates, using extensive written and personal interviews of the candidates as well as their references. Annie Davis, the founder and CEO of Annie's Nannies Household Staffing, says two decades of interviewing experience allows her and her staff to "immediately recognize the signs" that indicate a young woman would be a positive addition for a given family.

Davis says that trustworthy agencies can be found by contacting the national Alliance of Professional Nanny Agencies at www.theapna.org. The APNA reports that member agencies have met strict requirements and are continually reevaluated.

If you choose to find a nanny on your own, you can still hire an agency to perform the criminal background and reference checks and to ask difficult or uncomfortable questions during the interviews. (To do the background check on your own, see below.)

3. Make sure the nanny fits your family: Once you have several strong, viable candidates, what questions can you ask to glean how well this person will actually care for you child?

Kerry Kozlowski, the Bellevue mother of a 15-month-old boy, went through this hiring process last spring when she returned to work full time. She recommends asking questions about how the person might discipline a child in a given situation, or what the nanny would define as a "healthy" meal. "I wanted to make sure Luke didn't have juice all the time, or that... chicken nuggets would be common fare," she says. Kozlowski notes that questions about the nanny's own childhood and value system are helpful in deciding whether the person will be a good fit.

Davis adds that finding someone aligned with your family's own moral compass is critical to a successful relationship. For instance, do your views tend to be liberal or conservative? Do you have a strong religious persuasion? Davis says it is preferable to find someone who shares those philosophies. Problems often arise down the road if a parent learns the nanny is teaching something out of line with the family's belief system.

Finally, as you move through the hiring process, be very clear about what jobs the nanny will perform. Most difficult situations arise when the family begins "asking the nanny to be something different" than what she was hired to be, says Jenny Brown, head of Northwest Nanny Association, a non-profit support group. "If they want a nanny to do grocery shopping, pick up dry cleaning... then they need to say that when they are hiring."

According to Brown, most nannies are very comfortable being the child's educator. In fact, she adds, many are trained in early childhood education and hold teaching certificates, but find that nanny jobs pay more than teaching positions in schools.

4. Be ready for feelings of guilt: A girlfriend who was lucky enough to have the same nanny for several years once confided that she sometimes was uncomfortable about how close the nanny was to their family. As her children got older, she felt guilty about not being there enough for them and in turn, inwardly resented the special bond between the kids and the nanny. Another friend says that her feeling she was "outsourcing" her mothering duties actually drove her to quit her lucrative job.

Davis recommends that parents struggling with the notion of being "replaced" need to remember that there is no substitution for a loving parent and that there is no such thing as too many people loving your children. Likewise, it is healthy for your children to love many people. As Kozlowski reports, one year into her family's successful relationship with their nanny, "I'd be lost without her."

Hilary Benson lives in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in Metropolitan Living magazine, and she has also reported for KING-5 TV.

Background check basics

Criminal record: At $10 per search, you can access the Washington State Patrol's "WATCH" system, which stands for Washington Access to Criminal History at https://watch.wsp.wa.gov. All you need is the candidate's full name and date of birth. This Internet search is almost instantaneous and reports convictions, both felonies and misdemeanors, in Washington state. It does not, however, track convictions in other states. To be absolutely sure the person is who she says she is, you can request a fingerprint search at a cost of $25. This will confirm identity as well as search criminal records.

Driving record: The state's Department of Licensing allows you to download a form from its Web site -- www.dol.wa.gov/forms -- to request a nanny candidate's driving record. Legally, candidates must submit the form themselves unless they are applying to drive a commercial vehicle or school bus. This search costs $5 and can't be performed over the phone or Internet. Allow at least two weeks to receive information on speeding tickets, DUI convictions or other infractions in the person's driving history.

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