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Why is it so hard to find a babysitter?

Why it's so difficult finding someone to watch kids come date night.

Babysitter or bust: Parents share their struggles in securing someone to watch their kids. (Image: Getty; illustration by Liliana Penagos for Yahoo)
Babysitter or bust: Parents share their struggles in securing someone to watch their kids. (Image: Getty; illustration by Liliana Penagos for Yahoo)

It’s Friday night, and you are ready to get away from your sweet little angel kids for just a few hours — to grab a drink, reconnect with your partner, head out with some friends or simply meander around a store alone for a few minutes of peace. But, if you are like many U.S. families, you are running into a major hiccup. It’s just not that easy to find a sitter who is available, reliable, engaged and attentive.

As parents continue to struggle with daycare staffing shortages and lengthy wait lists, the desperation to secure babysitters for evenings, weekends and supplemental support is also dominating mommy message boards and group chats. Challenges range from sitter availability to personality mismatches, to increasing rates and decreased loyalty.

"We've had a few teen sitters over the years who ended up being a pain to schedule, unreliable or too quiet and reserved for my chatty, outgoing kids," says Carol Heffernan, a mom of two in Oshkosh, Wis.

According to Natalie Mayslich, president of the child care resource hub Care.com, the search for a go-to sitter has "definitely gotten much, much harder in the last few years."

"The caregiving workforce is shrinking and rates are rising, which makes looking for a sitter an extremely stressful, competitive and time-consuming process,” she adds. She adds that the problem is so rampant that Care.com data shows that 89% of surveyed parents have had to cancel or decline plans within the last six months. It's an issue that especially impacts moms, with just 48% saying that they are regularly able to get away from their kids for a break.

Other factors are also at play. Here's what parents are dealing with, and what experts recommend doing.

Teens and young adults’ own lives are busy and unpredictable.

Families have long leaned on teens or college-aged kids for supervising their kids in exchange for a decent hourly wage, pizza and maybe even some post-bedtime TV time. But teens today are spending less time working for pay and socializing, and more time sleeping and doing homework, according to data trends from Pew Research on 15-17-year-olds in 2014-2017 compared to 2004-2006. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’s American Time Use Survey found that in 2021, teens spent around three hours per day on educational activities and almost six hours on leisure and sports, compared to just over an hour working. In the inevitable crunch to prove themselves worthy of top colleges through extensive involvement in extracurriculars, high-level courses and leadership engagements, sometimes babysitting falls to the back burner. Those busy schedules can also make it tricky to accommodate a family's babysitting needs, as mom of two Ramsey Hootman discovered.

“We had one friend with an older kid we hired when he hit his teen years," the San Francisco Bay Area-based mom shares. "But then it was really hard to find a time where he was available, because teens have so many activities and responsibilities."

Finding the right fit takes time.

Babysitting apps like Bambino position themselves as a sort of Uber for sitters that friends and neighbors vouch for. But there's no guarantee that the sitter the kids like best will be consistently available, or that the person who can step up at a moment's notice will bond with them. Just ask any mom who has a potential sitter on standby, but knows that her kids will balk because they haven't warmed up to that person for whatever reason.

“Relationships take time, so no matter who the babysitter is, it will take time for your child to build a relationship with them,” says Maria Shaheen, senior director of early childhood education at Primrose Schools, and a parent who had the same issues with her young children.

“The best sign that a sitter has done a great job is your child’s reaction … asking when they'll be back or talking about all the fun things they did.," Mayslich adds. "For non-verbal children, you want to see your child’s been well-cared for, fed and changed and that they seem their normal happy selves. In addition, good sitters are strong communicators with you and your children. They follow the guidelines and rules you set and they’re punctual and dependable.”

But it’s also key for parents to consider if they have a family a babysitter will want to return to. Heffernan remembers that in her own babysitting days, the bond wasn’t always mutual. “I started babysitting at age 10 and sat for years for neighborhood families," she says. "There were some I really connected with and others I didn't. That's another part of the equation that can be a challenge."

Babysitter poaching happens.

Sometimes the perfect sitter is out there — but then suddenly becomes unavailable. According to a Care.com survey, 41% of parents say they've been the victims of "babysitter stealing," after passing along their sitter's contact to a another family in need. Just over a third of parents surveyed try to avoid this by gatekeeping their child care resources and keeping their sitter's details secret.

“Because it’s so tough to find a sitter, parents are actually stealing them from one another, ,,, So, it’s not surprising that many parents now keep their sitter under wraps,” Mayslich says.

Here's how to find that special person who clicks with you and your kids.

Despite the challenges of finding a steady sitter — not to mention the cost, which UrbanSitter puts at $22.68 an hour as the national average for one child — it's still worth looking for that support. The American Psychological Association points out just how real and prevalent parental burnout is, especially since the pandemic, so parents prioritizing time away from their kids, or even micro-breaks into their day, is essential.

Both Mayslich and Shaheen recommend that parents of course follow the safety protocols they are comfortable with. In terms of zeroing in on a reliable sitter, here's their advice:

  • Do a paid trial run with a potential sitter to see how the kids interact with them while you are home. “Do you like their style? How do they handle a problem? But, most importantly, are your children connecting with them?” Mayslich recommends.

  • Check reviews or ask for references from other families they’ve worked with.

  • If you do want to ask friends for recommendations, get an idea of what days they typically use the sitter so you aren’t a part of the babysitter-stealing epidemic. Be considerate and give them the first choice of dates.

  • Start with school. Shaheen notes that your child’s teachers might babysit on the side, and your kid already knows and trusts them.

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