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Finding a Babysitter for Challenging Children

One mom's tips for hiring (and keeping) a good sitter

Writer: Michaela Searfoorce

en Español

We have six (mostly) darling children, in every developmental stage and age you could imagine. Two of my boys have multiple diagnoses including autism, ADHD and OCD, including a five-year-old who is an expert-level screamer. Then there’s my happy-go-lucky three-year-old, who only screams if he’s been exposed to one of the 3,986 things he’s allergic to. And let’s not forget my 18-month-old, who while typical, has learned to unlock doors and make a break for it, especially when nobody’s looking.

When we relocated from NYC to Houston in 2014 we left everything familiar behind — family, friends, mass transit, grocery delivery — and entered a new world that involved Walmarts, lawnmowers, minivans and babysitters. Over the last 18 months I’ve come to regard finding a babysitter much like dating: Be suspicious of misspelled and abbreviated advertisements, disregard anyone who claims 10 years of experience at the age of 22, and most importantly, first impressions can be terribly misleading.

After many missteps, I’m happy to report that we finally found a few matches, and even a kindred spirit or two. I recognize that since I am a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother, my situation is unusual and some of the advice that follows may not be realistic for everyone. But after nearly two years of trial and error, I’m here to share my hard-earned tips with you all (y’all) on how to find the love of your life. And by that of course, I mean your next good babysitter.

Before airing your dirty laundry, show them a smile or two

We all know that too much information on a first date is generally a big no-no. The words “expert-level screamer” and “severe allergies” don’t ever appear in my employment ads. Just like dating, I found it was better to let the potential sitter get to know us a little bit before scaring her half to death.

Be up front as soon as it is wise, but perhaps don’t start off by announcing, “Oh, and this one must have his sandwiches cut into perfect rectangles with no crust or he will burst into flames.” If at all possible, make sure the sitter meets your child in a calm, happy mood. I have been known to prearrange this, aka bribe my children with a treat or 15 extra minutes of screen time, if they are pleasant and engaging during interviews.

True love isn’t cheap

When I was a teenager, being paid $20 at the end of a six-hour marathon evening with twin toddlers seemed like a good deal. While we all recognize that those days are long gone, the hourly wages that have been listed by some of our top candidates have been staggering, and more than a little sobering.

Since our first ad was placed, we have raised our starting hourly salary by more than 50 per cent, and have increased the pool of potential sitters by nearly as much. Unfortunately, we’ve also had to decrease the number of hours we were looking for and make some other budgetary adjustments to make the financial part work.

Be generous with your time, too

I try to have our kids, especially our five-year old — the one who’s prone to meltdowns — around a new sitter as much as possible before actually leaving him with her. Sometimes the babysitter has taken his older sister to classes for a month or more before we even try an hour of him staying alone with her. Usually by this time the sitter has seen what can happen when he unravels and my son has gotten used to seeing her around.

I also try to wait a while before leaving any sitters with more than three kids at a time so that she can get used to the different dynamics between various siblings.

Painstakingly plan the first few dates

Or maybe the first few months of dates, whatever it takes for both sitter and child to become comfortable with each other’s expectations. When I leave our five-year-old with the sitter, I still usually hand her a list that says ‘“Read 1 book, finish math homework, play outside for 30 minutes, clean room, put laundry away, then screen time for 30 minutes.” She knows what to expect, he knows what to expect. I figure by the time they get through the list, there won’t be that much time to spare on screaming in the event that something does go wrong.

Have an escape route

We had a sitter walk in the door once with a shell-shocked look on her face. It quickly came out that our son had thrown a huge fit on the way home and had continuously tried to unbuckle his seatbelt and escape while she was driving. This was nothing I had experienced and certainly not something I had prepped her for, outside of “explosive meltdown.” After consulting with her and our psychologist, we came up with a plan in case of future emergencies and similar situations that everyone could live with.

Seek the minimum — you can always ask for more later

My employment ads got less specific and much briefer as the first year plodded along with no real prospects in sight. I found that by asking for less, such as taking one child to class versus staying at home with the others, I got a lot more applicants. And then surprisingly, once some of those sitters got to know the rest of the family they actually volunteered to hold the fort while I took one out. You cannot underestimate the importance of getting to know and care about someone as a major factor in getting the help you need, especially with children who may initially come off as difficult.

Set her up for success, not (anaphylactic) shock

For the first several months, I leave ample “safe” food out on the counter so that our babysitter isn’t left guessing what she can feed our hyper-allergic child for lunch. I also show her where the medication is, just in case, and ask her to contact me before using it if possible.

Don’t let your desperation make you desperate (don’t settle)

Though we’ve certainly had our fair share of sitters run screaming in the other direction after a tantrum or two, we’ve also let several go. Constant talking/texting on the phone, arriving late or calling in sick too often, letting kids binge watch Rudolph’s New Year on a beautiful spring day, handing over screens or offering candy to avoid tantrums – have all been grounds for breaking it off, especially if it keeps happening after we’ve discussed the situation a time or two.

Keep an open mind

Even now, after eventually hiring three decent sitters to fit our crazy schedule each week, only one of them is comfortable watching all of my children. It’s not, as I would have predicted, the sitter who is the oldest of seven siblings, but the 18-year-old homecoming queen, who has not only learned how to manage allergies and fend off tantrums, but who has practically become part of the family.

None of the tips I’ve mentioned are a magic bullet. You may find “the one” after your first interview, or it might take you a few more trials than you’d prefer, as I can attest. But don’t give up – when Princess Jasmine shows up to help with your kids on Halloween, you’ll know it was worth the extra effort.

Read More:

5 Ways to Support Siblings in Special-Needs Families
Fighting Caregiver Burnout
How Parent Support Groups Can Help

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.