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Patience is key when seeking a sitter


Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. Call our answering machine with any advice or questions you have. Please check the end of the column for the toll-free number and today's question from a parent who needs your help.

Q: I'm going back to work and will be interviewing sitters for my 6-month-old. I'm sure I've thought of the obvious things, but I'd like to hear about the not-so-obvious considerations. What do parents know now that they wish they'd known then?

C.C., Boca Raton, Fla.

A: One of the most common mistakes, says Jane McIntosh of Ringoes, N.J., who edits a newsletter called Nanny News, is jumping at the first person who seems almost suitable rather than continuing with a diligent search.

"You will get lots of calls, but after screening them over the phone, you may not have many good candidates," says a mother in Minneapolis, Minn., who has hired eight nannies in the past nine years.

"Plan to spend several weeks finding the right person," she says.

Child-care industry statistics show that the average search takes two months, Ms. McIntosh says. And while you're at it, you may as well look for a back-up person who can fill in on sick days and take over temporarily if a sitter must be fired.

The next biggest mistake most parents make is that they don't spend enough time defining their real needs and priorities.

"If you've never done this before, you just don't know," Ms. McIntosh says. "But try to imagine the day-to-day process. Think about everything from work habits to personality styles to your own philosophy of discipline."

Once you've decided on your priorities, you need to be able to communicate those in an interview and ask questions that will elicit the information you need.

Ask about hobbies and interests, flexibility, future plans and what the sitter would do with your child on a rainy day, suggests Lisa Haefner of Buffalo, N.Y., who counsels live-in nannies and their employers in her job as a coordinator for the Au Pair in America program.

Several parents said that parents should do a thorough job of checking references, and many urged parents to check into the candidate's driving record. Because driving and credit documents can be difficult to access, Ms. McIntosh says that parents may want to hire a professional investigation service to do background checks of serious candidates.

"Draw up a contract and state exactly what you expect from the nanny and then get a clear understanding from your new sitter of what she expects from you as an employer," says Felicia Hendricks, a nanny in Atlanta.

It's also helpful to acknowledge from the outset that problems are bound to arise at times and agree on a method for solving them.

Finally, we heard from lots of mothers who say if you have any reservations about a candidate, don't hire her.

For a free copy of Nanny News, call (800) 634-6266. For information on the Au Pair in America program, call (800) 727-2437.

While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed thi column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.

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