Q&A: finding a babysitter

Beaver Girl writes:

"What's the best way to find a good sitter/nanny?   Agencies?  Craig's List?  Local parenting bulletin boards?  Word of mouth?

What sort of questions should I ask a nanny candidate?  I know the basics that you can download from any website, but do you have any secrets or tips on finding a good one?"

I'm going to need some reader participation here. I've only found part-time babysitters, never a full-time one. So I can tell what I know, but those of you who've done a full-on search for a full-time nanny are going to need to throw in your 2 cents.

For a part-time sitter, I like to use college students, either a mature undergrad or a grad student. College students often have nice chunks of time available for someone who needs some hours but not a half-time or full-time schedule, but won't desert you for a full-time babysitting gig (because they have classes to take). College students are also usually quite willing to do things exactly the way you want them done because they don't have preconceived notions about how babies should be raised (as many professional babysitters do). If you want the nap at 10, they won't argue about it. If you want the baby to eat green beans, they'll feed the green beans.

I also think that if your baby is over 6 months old, a college student is going to be great at being goofy and tiring your kid out. Once your kid starts trying to walk, a college student has the huge advantage of youth and vigor, and can spend hours bending over to hold a walker's hands. A student will have the stamina to play 5 games of Candyland in a row, or push the swing for 45 minutes. After a certain age, playing becomes way more important than anything else (assuming the babysitter feeds your child and changes diapers every few hours).

IME the thing you really want to look for is a connection between the babysitter and your child. Skills can be learned, so as long as the potential sitter has common sense (and your cell phone number), I'd go with the one you get along with best and who really thinks your kid is super-cute and super-funny.

For a full-time (or half-time) babysitter you're definitely going to want to go with a professional babysitter, since college students will take time off at the end of each term, and that can leave you high and dry. If I were looking for a full-time sitter, I'd go hang out at the playground (or wherever nannies go in your area) and watch until I saw a great one, one that you'd trust with your child. Then approach her and ask if she knows anyone looking for a full-time position. Good nannies know and hang out with other good nannies, and a good nanny wouldn't recommend a bad nanny. (You should hear the things good nannies say about bad ones. It makes the SAHM vs. WOHM debate look like a tea party.)

I don't know if I'd go with an agency (unless you were in a serious time pinch). It's going to cost you way more than the going rate in your area, and there's no guarantee that the nanny they send will be great, since so much of it is personality and what clicks with you and your family. That's not to say that you wouldn't be able to trust the nanny, just that you might not click the way you would if you found someone through another parent or nanny you trust and get along with.

You're also going to want to make sure you're on the same page with the nanny with regards to things like naps, feeding, and discipline. I know it's hard to imagine when you have a newborn, but at some point discipline is going to be a huge issue, and you want a nanny who continues the same tone you do so you have continuity of discipline.

A great babysitter can be a huge advantage, almost an ace in the hole, because she's another person who knows your child well and with whom you can discuss your child's development and issues. So you want someone who can really be attuned to your child, whether or not she has gobs of experience with other kids. (I'd go for the inexperienced enthusiastic nanny who loves playing with your child over the experienced jaded nanny who's tired from too many years of running around the playground, even if the experienced nanny knows everything there is to know about kids.)

OK, experienced WOH moms? How did you find your babysitters? Anything you did right? Anything you wish you'd done differently?