Having a Special Needs Babysitter

I was recently asked on my Facebook page if I had any tips for babysitters. I think that it is common for special needs parents, especially those with young kiddos, to have never had a babysitter. Now, I don’t mean that these parents have never left their kids, but rather that they leave their kids with family members, or their spouse.

So, what do you do when you leave your child with a REAL babysitter for the first time? Here are my tips, really with the goal and aim that your child and your family establish a positive long-lasting relationship with a babysitter, that allows you the flexibility of being out of the house, and your child the ability to have another adult in their life that understands them.

This is my advice and by no means is a substitute for your own judgement. Please remember that. : )

Having a Special Needs Babysitter

Who do I hire? You are going to hate this one, so I apologize ahead of time. BUT, so you know, my rule is that my babysitters must be over 18, enrolled/graduated from college, or have a stable job related to my child’s challenges. The age requirement is purely for experience. A young ‘mature’ teenager doesn’t have enough life experience to handle my kids. I am sure there are exceptions, but that’s my rule. Also, they must display some kind of interest in special needs kids, because I am not just looking for someone who wants to make money. 

Where do I find these amazing educated babysitters you speak of? Check out websites like SitterCity.com and Care.com. Ask at your Occupational Therapist’s office – chances are they have some suggestions, or maybe an intern or an assistant is interested. Ask your child’s teachers for ideas. Most teachers don’t babysit, but you never know. Maybe they have an adult child that does? Everyone that works with your child is a resource for new babysitters. Ask.

What do I ask during the interview?  That is a personal decision, for sure.  For our family, I screen babysitters by phone first.  They need to 'sound' enthusiastic and answer all of my history/background questions satisfactorily.  This is where we take care of the basics: Who are you?  What do you do?  Why you want to babysit?  When you are available? I get references, and I call them.  Yes, no one gives references of people who won't say nice things, but you'd be shocked what some people DO say.  So, call them.  After this step, the babysitter is invited for an in-person interview, during which I am really just looking to see if they 'click' with me and my kids.  If they do, then it is time for a background check.  The sites listed above offer that as part of your membership. WELL WORTH IT. If they pass, we are on to money negotiations.

How much do I pay? This varies. Because of my requirements, I pay my current babysitter $15-$20/hour. Yes, that is a lot. BUT, I don’t have a babysitter often. AND, my babysitter has a college degree that relates to my child's challenges, plus has worked for 3 years in the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit at Children’s Hospital, is married (brings awesome hubby with her) and can handle all three of my sons – successfully. This arrangement works for our family.  What you pay is really up to you - what you are comfortable with and how much you can afford.  It also largely depends on other things, like how many kids you have and how difficult their care is (Does the babysitter need to prepare a special diet? Does your child require medication?). Do realize that 1 special needs kid, alone, could easily cost $10-$15 an hour. The most important guideline for payment is you should pay enough that the babysitter feels valued balanced with the amount you can comfortably afford.  My theory is if you find a good babysitter, that's a gold mine, so treat her well!

Found a babysitter, now what? Plan something so that your kid and the babysitter can get to know each other. Throw out the theory that you have to have a date at night. Instead, pick a time during the day that your child is most likely to be successful. If morning is the best time, go have breakfast. If afternoon is best, head to a movie. Pick a time, make it short, and set her and your child up for success.  More date nights, other times, and 'reason based' babysitting (ie: like having a party to attend on a set night) will come.

What do I tell the babysitter? How much info do I give? Special needs children are more difficult to explain in a nutshell to any caregiver. I understand that. Trust me. But, I also think that if you are just looking to go out to dinner, and maybe *gasp* a movie with your spouse, then you don’t need to brief the babysitter on your child’s entire medical history. Not only does it make your child look crazy, it makes YOU look crazy. And babysitters don’t like outwardly crazy people (no matter what you are paying!). So, my advice: Keep it simple.

Leave the standard info.  It is important, any time you have a babysitter that you leave the pertinent info behind.  Where you are, when you'll be back, phone numbers, your address, a list of all medications your child is taking (even if they aren't being administered while you are gone, this is for emergency), neighbor's phone number, and anything else.  Stick it by the phone and let the babysitter know.  Also, instruct them CLEARLY that if they need to call 911 that they request police back up for emergency care authorization.  Most states (please check in your state) allow police officers to authorize emergency medical care for children when their parent/guardian isn't available.  Letting the 911 operator know that the babysitter requires that, is important.

Tantruming while you’re away. It is going to happen and it is OK. Let the babysitter know, honestly, what types of things cause tantrums (toys, food, ‘no’). Then go over the challenges the babysitter is likely to encounter while you are away, noting solutions. Give her to the tools to avoid foreseeable tantrums like “Nick will say it is OK for him to watch a marathon of The Clone Wars, but it isn’t. I am OK with him watching one episode, but make that deal with him before you turn on the show” or “Gabe will insist that we play Monopoly every night before bed, while he drinks Hot Chocolate, but that’s not true. If you want to play a game, he handles Sorry much better, and can have water. He won’t be happy, but he will know you and I are on the same page. Feel free to blame me!”

Sensory input. If your child requires specific sensory input for regulation, leave instructions for the babysitter. Tell her your child’s cues like, “If you see Tommy start to wind up, or rub his ears, it means he could use some quiet time, try taking him to his room to do a puzzle” or “If Suzie starts crashing, let her jump from the trampoline onto the couch for some good input.” The focus here is on BRIEF information geared towards this person taking care of your child for a BRIEF time.  You are looking to provide them with information on how to handle your child one day at a time -- a FULL understanding of SPD isn't necessary.

Let them have fun! This really should be the first tip. My rule for when the babysitter is here is that there are NO RULES. Yes, there are some boundaries, but really, I want the kids to have fun. I want them to think they totally got away with stuff. I want them to have movies and popcorn, make cookies and play Angry Birds on the babysitter’s iPhone. I want them to think that our babysitter is the COOLEST FREAKIN’ PERSON ON THE PLANET (and she is…). Why? Because guess who is asking to have the babysitter back? Yep, that’s right, my kids. And the babysitter isn’t here to parent my kids – she is here to keep them safe and happy until I return to parent them. It is a break for all of us.

More than anything, you should know that having a babysitter occasionally for your child is something you deserve. You deserve to nurture your relationships outside of the home; with friends, with family, with your spouse. Really – go live a little. Just be sure to come home before the babysitter is overloaded!


The Teacher's Wife said...

I wish we could find a sitter like that!! LOL- too bad you don't live closer! We really only go out when mother in law is in town....she's the best sitter!

Ligia said...

I had a sitter that I really likes. Unfortunately she was a bit crazy and we had to let her go. I am back to using Care.com to find someone that we all like. Thanks for the tips!

Hartley said...

The Teacher's Wife - Yep, my mom is the BEST babysitter we have, and given that she is free, we use her all the time! LOL

Ligia - Such a bummer to lose a good babysitter (especially if she is crazy!), but keep searching - you'll find another. :)

Our Side of the Mountain said...

Lots of GREAT information! My kids rarely stay with babysitters, but when they do (and grandparents or aunts aren't available) I have my friend just down the road. She's been a foster Mom for YEARS - mostly special needs - and understands SPD. Autism and other conditions. I'm very fortunate that we "exchange" sitting so it's free! (My oldest son is "itchin'" to take the Red Cross Babysitter Course when he turns 12 so he can babysit FOR MONEY though! LOL)

ShesAlwaysWrite said...

This is so helpful! We've been struggling with finding an alternate sitter (we have a great one, but she graduated college and got a full time job in medical field, so harder to book her). I'm going to check out those websites asap.

Sarah said...

This is fantastic advice. Our kids are 5 and 8 and we still do not have this down--you are so thorough and helpful here, I'm going to revise our plan for finding/managing babysitters. And I love, love, love the direction to Keep It Simple--so many times I go way overboard, without even sharing the most important things to do.

Thank you, thank you.

michelle said...
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michelle said...

Love the post, thank you!
As a teacher who loves to babysit, I appreciate knowing that what I do is as valuable to others as it is to me. My husband and I work as a team, & most of the time we are both present.

We have been invited to and have gone to visit during an OT session, and we have taken and still will take classes and seminars on SPD and other subjects of interest to teachers and sitters.

It's a gift to work with children, and a gift to work with the very amazing children who have SPD. We found that being invited to that session was an invaluable honor. If you are able to, I suggest that you invite your babysitter [if (s)he is a regular sitter in your life]. Golden, really.

Danette said...

From experience, I totally concur with your advise. There are no short cuts to finding a good sitter, and I agree, once you find one, treat her like gold!

Hartley said...

I am so glad you all find this helpful! Obviously it is just from experience that we moms get this info - but gosh how we have tried (and failed) with so many babysitters. Ugh.

I need to add a few other options to my list!

Hope you all get a date night soon,

Patty O. said...

Wow! great post, Hartley! We're lucky in that our kids behave beautifully for sitters. We have two teens who are brother and sister and they are phenomenal. We know them from church and have known them since we moved here (almost 7 years). They have hung out at our house before and I am good friends with their mom, who lives only 3 blocks away, so is close in case they need help.

I am going to cry when they both go off to college!

Gina @ Special Happens said...

Love the post Hartley!

Rosemary said...

I'm a single mom so until very recently nights out were rare ... but I have an au pair for childcare, and now that all three of my kids are in school full-time, she can give me some evening hours, too. She lives with me, so she knows my kids better than anyone. The thing is, your post is just as relevant for special needs parents looking for daycare as it is for those seeking a babysitter. I follow the same rules, ask the same questions, that you do for babysitting. My current au pair not only grew up with a sibling on the spectrum but spent her summers working at camps where she was one of the dedicated counselors for the kids with Asperger's. She was only 18 when she arrived and already more mature than most grown-ups I know, and she's phenomenal with all three of my kids. And with me as well ;-) My agency (I use AuPairCare) reserves au pairs with special needs experience and a willingness to work with special needs kids for the families who need them. She's my 7th au pair, and I've learned from her that while specific experience with my son's disability gives her a remarkable level of understanding, any au pair who has experience with special needs has a great well of patience and just gets, on some level, what difference means can be just as good. But you have to interview them just as well and prepare them just as well ... I have a thick sheaf of papers I send to all my au pairs describing routines, diet, discipline, sensory needs, what to do in emergencies, and so on, and so on ... your list captures it perfectly!

CPRMom said...

Another suggestion, check with your local college if they have a OT or Therepeutic Recreation Program. Many times you will find students in these programs who are looking for part time or occasional jobs. I teach CPR & First Aid for these programs and have found that OT & TR students ask some of the best questions in class and are really enthusiastic about their studies. You can also check with care4hire.com, that is another babysitter site.

jas_hodges said...

Thankfully I have good church friends that come stay with my kids and I have two SPD kids and 2 autistic kids one of the kids with Autism also has SPD so... But it's awesome because the people from my church don't charge me and they do understand what I'm going through with the boys. To a degree. One is just a good friend of ours and the other is going to study to be a teacher. So this will be good experience for her.

Ollibean said...

Great advice! Always hard to find a sitter..especially if your child has difficulty communicating.