When our daughter was born last December, we were so delighted to be new parents again that the last thing on our minds was leaving her with someone else. Fast-forward a few months: We’re sneaking kisses in the kitchen, thinking, “We need a break!” — which really means “We needed a sitter!” Sitter and chargeShort of roping in Grandma (yet again), how could we find someone we could trust? I turned to some more experienced moms for help.

Look around you first
Cara Elston is one such mom. With four kids, she has lots of experience juggling being a good mom and having some independence from her Seattle-based brood. Her advice? Start your sitter search close to home. For her, that meant both her church and the day care she sometimes used. In both places, she found great babysitters. She was comfortable hiring them, too, because, as she says, “we either knew them or knew their parents well.”

Anna Cieslar, a Seattle kindergarten teacher and the mother of two, also started her sitter search close to home. Because her son has special needs, Anna started by looking at his school, where she found a teacher looking to do some sitting. Anna knew the teacher had the skills to take care of her son and that made her comfortable taking time away. “It was expensive,” Anna admits, “but it was worth it to have that peace of mind.”

Cara suggests another potential source of babysitters — your neighbors! Depending on his or her experience and temperament, that tween or teen down the street may be perfect as a regular babysitter. In fact, they may have already taken special babysitter training classes, such as the “Better Babysitters” course offered by Seattle Children’s. Just be sure to talk to their parents, so you know the sitter’s limits (such as when they need to be home).

Finally, you can try asking your friends for their sitters’ names — but don’t be surprised if they balk! For many moms, that information is sacrosanct. As one mom told me, “I’m afraid you’ll use her so much she won’t have time to sit for us.”

Services and local ads
If you can’t find a babysitter another way, you can try using a service such as sittercity.com or going through an online classified-ad website, such as Craigslist. Using these options, however, means you’ll do more work. Even though sitter services usually screen sitters, they may have different standards than you or may not search for things you want to know. For example, if the sitter will be driving your kids, you may want to know her driving record, something an agency may not check. You should ask the service for details of its screening process. And find out how often it re-screens; a background check done five years ago may not be of much use today.

Even if the service checks references, you will likely want to do some checking yourself. One place you can often start is the service itself; some online agencies allow parents to rate and post comments on sitters they have used. You may also want to ask for — and check — local references on your own.

If you decide to try placing an ad on a site like Craigslist, keep in mind that anyone can respond. You may want to schedule interviews at a local coffee shop instead of your home, for safety. Once you’ve found someone you like, it’s time for the reference and background checks. Remember that references are usually chosen because the sitter believes they will say good things; if the references are not recent, ask why. Try to talk to someone who uses the sitter now, so you’ll get a current view of their work. Some questions you may want to ask references include: Would they hire the babysitter again? How was he with the kids? What are the kids’ ages? Was the babysitter dependable? And why did the family stop using the babysitter (if they have)?

Background and criminal-history checks are much more complex and time consuming, especially if the babysitter is not from the area. Some local private-investigation firms conduct “nanny checks” for a flat fee; try calling a few until you find one you like and can afford. There are also a multitude of online “checking” services, but use them with caution. You should always be up front with sitters about doing these checks, both to give them the option to explain any minor blemish on their record and to let them gracefully withdraw if their past won’t withstand review.

Charge up your cell phone
Once you’ve got your babysitter, get ready for your night out! You may want to have a “trial run” of a few hours with the sitter at your house before the actual date night. This helps them get to know your kids while you are there to answer questions. Next, make a sitter “cheat sheet” (visit this story on parentmap.com for a sample) with all the essential information the sitter may need. Then charge your cell phone, so you won’t worry about a dead battery. If you know you won’t relax unless you check in, let the babysitter know when you’ll call — and limit it to just that one call. Remember, the purpose of all this work is to let you have some time not focused on parenting. If you can stand it, try going without calling at all, trusting that the sitter you worked so hard to find will be great — and so will your time alone!

Kathryn Russell Selk lives, works, writes in Seattle, and is currently looking for a good babysitter and a free night to spend some “alone time” with her husband, Christian.

Click here for a handy babysitter information form.

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