A baby or young child must have someone available to care for him at any moment in every twenty-four hours, and that is a commitment which no single person (no, not even his mother) should be expected to fulfill for long. If you happen to live within a large family or other group, you may be able to come and go more or less as you please, knowing that there will always be somebody around to "keep an eye on" the baby. But there are few families like that today. If you and your partner are in sole charge of that baby (or more especially if you are his only parent), it is important to get a babysitting system organized before your beloved child begins to feel like your jailer.
Choosing a Babysitter
The ideal person is not really a babysitter at all but an occasional mother-substitute who may, perhaps, be the baby's grandmother. If you are fortunate enough to have a willing one available, cultivate her. She can not only "sit with" the sleeping baby while you go out in the evening, but also play with him or take him out while you pursue your own daytime interests or simply enjoy the luxury of being in your own home with nobody saying "Mom." If your baby does become accustomed to this sort of arrangement he will also have invaluable insurance against the dread day when you have to enter the hospital or spend a few days away coping with a family bereavement. Although he will be upset by your absence he will be far less upset than he would be if he were cared for by someone whom he scarcely knows or by someone who had never before offered him personal and intimate care.
If you have no willing relatives nearby you may be able to share this kind of extended babysitting with another family. It is truly idiotic that several sets of neighbor-parents should each feel trapped by their children when, with a little cooperation, all could offer each other a modicum of freedom while keeping all the children happy and secure. The trick is to be honest with yourself as well as with the other involved parents. If you have a big garden, for example, and the others have none, you are likely to find that you are the one with four toddlers around on summer afternoons. Do you mind? If you do, say so before you begin to feel put-upon. But perhaps you will not mind. Perhaps your own child enjoys the daytime company while you want, above all, to be freed to go out in the evening or to be relieved of the nursery school transport round.
Sometimes you will be offered daytime (as well as evening) babysitting by an adolescent who either "adopts" your family or finds it a pleasant way to earn pocket money. Be very sure that you do not ask (or allow her to volunteer) for more than she is capable of doing. She may long to take your baby for walks but be quite oblivious to the sun in his eyes, unreliable strange dogs or unevenly loaded carriages. She may love your baby when he smiles or sleeps but find him revolting when he cries or smells. She may mean to be one hundred percent responsible ninety-nine percent of the time but be quite unable to resist joining her gang when it passes your garden or slipping out to meet her boyfriend "just for a minute." Running risks of this kind is not fair to the baby, to you or to the adolescent. So, if she thinks she wants to replace you for short periods of that baby's life, let her do so first under your supervision so that you all have the opportunity to see how she gets on and to be sure that she really knows what she is taking on.
Anyone who is going to care for your baby or young child during his waking hours needs to know him well. Because his memory is so short and he is changing so rapidly, that means that she needs to see him frequently. Even a devoted relation will seem like a stranger to a baby who only sees her every few weeks, while the one who coped so beautifully with him when he was carriage- or chair-bound may be quite unable to keep him safe and happy once he is crawling. If you plan on daytime relief, make sure that baby and sitter meet frequently, even if you actually want to leave them together only on rare occasions.
A complete stranger, however well trained, can never offer satisfactory care to a baby or young child. If you find yourself tempted by the nurseries offered by some hospital outpatient departments, large stores or adult education institutes, acknowledge your own desire for occasional freedom from childcare and make proper arrangements.
If your child normally sleeps soundly, an evening babysitter will not usually have to offer him any personal service. She is there in case something goes wrong. Since the child could become ill or have a nightmare, the ideal person is still somebody whom he knows and trusts. But since he probably will not wake up, you may feel that it is legitimate to gamble a little. A complete stranger (hired, perhaps, from an agency) will obviously terrify him if he should wake, but a friendly acquaintance or regular sitter who always comes in if you go out may be acceptable. These are some of the points other parents have found important:
Don't leave a mere acquaintance to put the child to bed. He will not settle down. Put him to bed before you go out even if that means that you put him to bed a little earlier than usual.
If the child is old enough to understand, warn him that you will be out. Although he may still be amazed when Mrs. Jones comes in instead of Mommy, he will then remember what you said and, hopefully, settle down again to her assurances that you will be home soon. If you do not warn him and he does wake, he may be reluctant to settle down to sleep on subsequent nights in case you slip away.
If the child is not old enough to understand, try to leave a telephone number. If you have no telephone in your house this is obviously impossible: the sitter cannot leave the child to call you. But if you do have a telephone you can be reached, if you are needed, almost anywhere. The management of a theater or concert hall will fetch you out if you leave your seat numbers with the sitter. A cinema will flash a message on the screen for you if the sitter convinces the management that it is an emergency. Even a bar will relay a message. Of course, leaving a number means that you cannot spend a completely spontaneous evening, wandering along the river or calling on various friends to see who feels like going out for a drink, but it does not limit you to spending the evening in another private house.
Be absolutely certain that the sitter will not leave the house however late you may be. You may have every intention of being home by midnight but you could have a flat tire or an accident. . . you must be sure that your sitter will stay until you reappear and that she has no commitments (such as her own children once her husband departs for an early-morning shift) which could "force" her to leave. It is often sensible to arrange for her to sleep in your house if you should be very late, but do make sure that she does so within easy earshot of the baby; remember that her ear may not be quite so tuned to infant cries as is yours.
Don't leave a child to care for a child. Only you can decide at what age your own older child is capable of babysitting for the younger one, but remember that if there is a real emergency, a ten-, twelve- or fourteen-year-old may be just as frightened as the baby. After all, you are not only guarding him against the emotional horrors of waking alone from a nightmare but from the practical horrors of fire or intruders, too. It may be that both baby and child need the security of an adult in the house.
Tags: Parenting and Families