Babysitter Safety: What You Need to Know

Must-have information for teens who babysit.

From the WebMD Archives

When you're in middle school or high school, there aren't a ton of job options. (President of the United States and CEO of a major corporation are still a few years down the road.)

Babysitting is still one of the best -- and most popular -- jobs for pre-teens and teens. For many, it's their very first job.

You might be excited about the prospect of finally earning some money of your own, but hold on a minute.

Do you know exactly what you're getting into? Babysitting isn't as easy as it looks. There's a lot of responsibility involved in caring for someone else's kids.

Before you jump into your first babysitting job, you need to know whether you're ready. You also need to know what to expect and how to handle any emergencies that might come up.

Are You Ready to Babysit?

Most states don't have laws requiring kids to be a certain age to babysit. When you start babysitting really depends on you -- and your parents.

You might feel like you're ready to babysit your younger brothers and sisters as early as age 11. Or you might feel more comfortable waiting until you're 15 or 16. Some kids are ready in middle school, but their parents say "no way" until high school.

When you start babysitting doesn't only depend on your age. "There are many issues involved," says Sally Herrholz, executive director of Safe Sitter, a nonprofit organization that trains teens on babysitting basics. "It's really more related to the maturity of the child," she says.

"We want them to be able to make smart decisions," says Lindsay O'Donnell, CHES. She's a senior associate with the American Red Cross, which also runs a babysitting training program.

Making bad decisions when you're watching kids can get you into real trouble. One study showed that nearly half of young babysitters (ages 11-13) did things they shouldn't have -- like leaving young children alone.

It takes just a few seconds alone for a baby or toddler to get burned, fall into the pool or tub, or get seriously injured.

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Your safety is also on the line. You need to think about whether you feel safe with the family you’re sitting for, what you would do if a stranger showed up at the front door, and how you’re going to get home afterward.

Along with being mature and responsible, you also need to:

  • Like kids
  • Understand kids
  • Have a lot of patience

If you have all of these traits but you don't know much about babysitting, some training can help.

Before You Babysit: What You Need to Know

Would you know what to do if you were babysitting and a stranger showed up at the front door? What would you do if the baby you were watching started to choke?

You'll be better prepared for any situation that pops up if you take a babysitter class. The Red Cross and Safe Sitter are two organizations that offer babysitter training courses for kids ages 11 and up.

Babysitter training goes through all of the situations you might encounter while on the job. "It's empowering them to make decisions for their own safety and for the safety of the child they're watching," Herrholz says.

Taking a babysitter class might even help you get a babysitting job. A Red Cross survey found that parents like to hire babysitters who have gone through training and who know how to handle emergencies.

At a babysitter training program, you'll learn how to:

  • Interview for a babysitting job
  • Set your rate
  • Feed, care for, and hold a baby
  • Handle an emergency like an injury, sickness, or fire
  • Know when to call for help
  • Perform basic first aid
  • Discipline a child who misbehaves

You might also want to take a first-aid or CPR class so you can learn more about how to handle injuries. Usually when kids in a babysitter's care get hurt, it's something minor like a cut or scrape. But the next most common injuries are more serious, like burns, choking, and drowning, says Nicole M. Hackman, MD, FAAP. She's the author of the pre-teen babysitter study and pediatric chief resident at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

A first aid class will cover how to care for injuries like cuts, scrapes, and burns. An infant/child CPR class will teach you how to help a child who isn't breathing.

At the end of the class, you'll get a card or certificate showing that you've been through the training program. Then you'll be ready to start looking for babysitter jobs.

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Screening Your Employers

When you interview with a family for a babysitting job, you're not just telling the parents about yourself. You're also learning about the family and whether you want to work for them.

"If they feel uncomfortable in any way they should consider not taking the job," O'Donnell says. Look for these red flags that this isn't the babysitting gig for you:

  • You're going to be babysitting for four, five, or even more kids (especially if they're babies)
  • The parents make you uncomfortable
  • The kids are badly behaved
  • The house is a total mess
  • The parents insist that you do things you don't want to do (like cleaning the house, opening the door to strangers, or cooking)

Before you accept the job, talk to your parents. Make sure they're also cool with the family that's hiring you.

Do a Trial Run

Once you accept the job, try it out. Watch the child (or children) while one or both of the parents is still at home.

A trial run will let you rehearse all the responsibilities you'll have when you sit for real. "It gives the babysitter some confidence of not only the routine and where things are, but also that they can do it," Hackman says.

Before the Parents Leave: What to Ask

When you arrive at your babysitting job, don't just say "bye" and let the parents walk right out the door. Show up at least 30 minutes early your first time there so you can get a tour of the house and find out everything you need to know about the family's routine.

Here is a checklist of questions to ask the parents before they leave:

Where is the safety equipment?

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Flashlight
  • Alarm system
  • First aid kit
  • Exits
  • Fire escape route

Where is the list of emergency contacts with phone numbers? This list should include:

  • Parents' cell phone numbers and the phone number of the restaurant, theater, or wherever else they'll be that night
  • Local police and fire station phone numbers
  • Emergency number (usually 911)
  • Grandparents' phone numbers
  • Phone numbers of neighbors and friends who live close by
  • Pediatrician's or family doctor's numbers
  • Poison control hotline
  • The home's phone number, address, and directions to the house

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What do I need to know to care for the kids?

  • What should they eat and when should they eat?
  • Do I need to cook?
  • Are snacks and sweets allowed?
  • Do they have any allergies to foods or medicines?
  • Do the kids need to take a nap? At what time? For how long?
  • At what time should they go to bed?
  • What is their bedtime routine (brushing teeth, taking a bath, putting on pajamas, reading a story)?
  • How should the baby be put to bed (on his or her back with no pillows, blankets, or stuffed animals)?
  • How should I calm the kids if they're crying or angry?
  • Is there anything else you need me to know about caring for your children?

What are the house rules?

  • How are the kids punished if they don't behave (time-outs, toys taken away)?
  • Should I open the door? For which people? (Our experts say it's best not to open the door for anyone while you're babysitting.)
  • If a child needs to take medicine, when should I give it and what is the right dose?
  • Are the kids allowed to watch TV? What programs can they watch?
  • Are the kids allowed to play computer or video games? What games can they play?
  • Can I take the kids outside?

What should I do if there's an emergency?

  • What should I do if your child is sick?
  • When should I call you?
  • Who should I call first if I can't reach you?
  • When should I call 911?

Other Tips to Remember Before You Babysit

Here are a few other things to think about before you babysit:

  • You might be young, but you're empowered. Don't do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. If the parents ask you to open the door for Uncle Charlie but he totally creeps you out, keep that door closed.
  • Stay off the phone and computer while you're watching kids. You need to be paying attention. "The television is not the babysitter, the video game is not the babysitter, you are," Herrholz says.
  • Never text, Facebook, or Twitter your location. You don't want to get in trouble for having your friends show up, and you definitely don't want some stranger surprising you at the front door.
  • Put your parents on call. If the father is supposed to drive you home and he comes home smelling like alcohol or he's making you really uncomfortable, make sure your parents can pick you up, no questions asked.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 22, 2010

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics Children's Health Climbing to New Heights, San Francisco, Oct. 2-5, 2010. 

Nicole M. Hackman, MD, FAAP, pediatric chief resident, Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

Lindsay O'Donnell, CHES, senior associate, American Red Cross.

Sally Herrholz, executive director, Safe Sitter Inc.

American Red Cross: "Summer Safety. March 2010 Polling." 

University of Michigan Health System: "Babysitter Safety -- What Parents and Sitters Need to Know." 

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