Subscriber OnlyHealth

Misadventures in babysitting: ‘We trusted her. Here she was drinking and dancing as our son cried’

Parents advised to lay clear ground rules before hiring babysitter and to do paid trial run so children can become accustomed to them first

Leaving your child with a babysitter for the first time can feel both exhilarating and terrifying, as you put their safety and comfort in the hands of someone else, often a teenager, and try to enjoy a well-earned break.

Knowing that they are, most likely, having a lovely time eases the doubt – and over time, it becomes less of a wrench. But finding someone you can trust to be responsible and trustworthy isn’t always easy, as many parents can attest to.

Two years ago, Angela O’Connor was horrified when she returned home early from a night out to find her 17-year-old babysitter enjoying a “mini-party” with friends in her livingroom.

“Before we went out to dinner, we left the babysitter strict instructions to keep an extra ear out for our toddler, who had started getting up at night and calling for us,” she says. “We had planned to stay out until about midnight, but by 10pm I had a headache, so we decided to come home early – and were shocked to find our house a hive of activity.

READ MORE

“There was music blaring and a group of girls dancing around the sittingroom with beer cans. Two bottles of our wine were empty on the table. It was like a slap in the face – we had trusted her to mind our child, and here she was drinking and dancing, without a care in the world, while our son was standing at the upstairs stair-gate crying.

“She said she’d been going up every 10 minutes to check, so he must have only woken when we came home. We told her to leave immediately and said we’d never use her again. I was so livid and couldn’t believe that she was underhand and not even bothered by being caught out. I was reluctant to go out for a long time afterwards – but then a friend suggested that we take turns minding each other’s kids, rather than leaving them with a teenager. I know they’re not all like that, and am sure most people have good experiences, but since then, I only leave him with people I know well.”

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says it’s vital for parents to lay clear ground rules before hiring a babysitter and doing a paid trial run so the children can become accustomed before being left alone with them. And, if rules are broken, parents should assess the severity of the situation before deciding on the next step. “When you seek out a babysitter, make sure they meet your reasonable standards and are someone you feel you can trust,” he says.

“Experiment initially with shorter periods, staying local and arriving home earlier than expected – not to spy on or trick your babysitter, but to develop trust and comfort with them. If this is broken, ask yourself if it’s possible to give a second chance and rebuild trust or if you need to respectfully move on to a new babysitter.

“But also remember that you have a responsibility to them too; to explain things, have realistic expectations, not hide information which could lead to an unpleasant surprise and to always speak to them respectfully.”

Aisling Nash from Kildare had a scary experience. Her babysitter of four months collected her son from preschool, as she and her husband were working late, and her mother was due to collect him from her house. But when she arrived to pick up her grandson, there was no one home.

You don’t want to be annoying and have lots of rules to start off with, but it’s good to tell them what your child isn’t allowed to do

Understandably distressed, she tried calling a number of times, before finally getting through to the minder, who said she had asked another person to collect him, so that is where he was likely to be. “My mum didn’t know who this other person was and instructed the babysitter to ask them to bring my son to her immediately,” she says.

“She said that the other childminder was on a school run, but she had a red car so advised my mother to look out for her. Mum drove to our village, but was unable to locate James, who was only three at the time. She kept phoning our childminder over and over asking for the woman’s contact number, which she eventually supplied – and by the time my mum located them, James was hysterically crying and had wet himself in distress.

“My mum was extremely upset and brought James home, where she and my dad tried to console him. When I got home, I was enraged that someone would be so cruel as to pass off a toddler they were responsible for to someone they didn’t know. He was still very upset and got hysterical again reliving [it]. He was also embarrassed he had wet himself, but when he said he needed to go to the toilet, was told he had to wait.”

The mother of three was very angry about the situation and confronted the babysitter, who initially said she passed James on to another minder as she was collecting a sick child and didn’t want him to be in the car with her. But this was apparently not true, as the supposedly ill child was actually out of the country.

“She wasn’t in the least bit sorry and didn’t seem to understand or be willing to acknowledge the stress and trauma her actions had led to,” says Nash. “She was adamant our son was never in danger and didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to understand how traumatic it was for him to be left in a stranger’s car, not to mention the stress it caused my parents, who were trying to find him. It was extremely frightening to think that if my mum hadn’t gone to collect him after school, how long he would have been in distress and we would have never known.

“We had paid her for a month in advance but said he would never be in her care again and she could keep the money. After this, a close friend stepped in to help while on leave from his job, and he was our saviour. I would advise other parents to be diligent. I got a reference for this babysitter, but I hadn’t seen any evidence of her being a registered childminder and this should be top priority. It has to feel right, you need to be comfortable and so does your child.”

It’s also important that parents don’t try to sneak out without telling the child they are leaving – this is a big mistake that parents often make

—  Psychologist Dr Malie Coyne

Peadar Maxwell says it’s important for parents to take a number of factors into consideration before trusting anyone with their children. “They should consider the person’s age, ability and what they know of their character, before relating that information to their own child and seeking a match,” he says. “A beginner babysitter is probably not ready to mind a very young child and certainly not a baby, and if your child has additional needs, is hard to manage for any reason or requires the medication, they should only be cared for by a capable, mature person under clear instructions.

“Babysitting involves earning money, so be mindful of the motivation, because although this is not a bad intention, the young person must also be up for the task, which could involve a child having some separation anxiety, being a poor sleeper, or if there is more than one child to look after.”

Fellow psychologist Dr Malie Coyne agrees and says it’s important to let a babysitter know what to do in case of an emergency, to ensure they are equipped with various numbers in case they can’t get reach the parent, and impress on them the importance of being vigilant to the child’s needs. “This involves not inviting people over while they are babysitting and paying attention to the kids while they are awake,” she says. “It could also mean not allowing the children to watch anything inappropriate and knowing what their bedtime is.

“You don’t want to be annoying and have lots of rules to start off with, but it’s good to tell them what your child isn’t allowed to do and also that if they are misbehaving, it’s okay to be stern with them. But safety is number one, so it would be great if a babysitter was kind of trained in CPR or something like that.”

If you’ve had a bad experience and your child is nervous, let them know well in advance that you’re going to be going out on a particular night

Laying down rules is important, but they aren’t always adhered to. Dr Coyne, author of Love in, Love Out, says that the way in which you deal with this depends on the severity of what has happened. “If it’s a small indiscretion, like they didn’t clean up after themselves, you could maybe bring it to their attention the next time, but that’s a hard one because usually we’re so grateful they’re babysitting in the first place. But if you come home and find that the trust has been broken or the child has said that the babysitter did or didn’t do something that was previously agreed, then I would say don’t use them again.

“Obviously, if there is a child protection issue, you have to address this with the babysitter or their parents, because you don’t want another family to experience something similar – and get your child some support if you feel they need it. But don’t sweat the small stuff – if you’re not going to be using them on a regular basis, find someone else. Or go for the option of a babysitting service.

“If you’ve had a bad experience and your child is nervous, let them know well in advance that you’re going to be going out on a particular night – and if they are anxious about it, have the babysitter over a few times beforehand so the child can get used to them with you there, and plan some activity so they’re not just looking at each other.

“It’s also important that parents don’t try to sneak out without telling the child they are leaving – this is a big mistake that parents often make and it actually makes the child not trust them and is counterproductive.”