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Finding the Right Babysitter for Your Child With Special Needs

Are the people watching your children positively impacting their cognitive abilities?

Adoptive father and blogger Billy Cuchens lives in The Colony with wife, Laurie, and kids, Isaac, Vivianna, Jayden and Jasmine. 

It’s hard to find a babysitter when we have four kids, three of whom have various and multiple medical diagnoses. We have some local extended family, but we try to use them sparingly. “They sure are a lot of work,” they tell us when the kids have spent the night over. “We live with them 24/7,” we want to say. “We’re very aware of this.”

I remember a few months back when the kids spent the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. On the car ride home, I asked the kids what they did. “We watched TV,” one of the kids said.  My wife, Laurie, and I waited for someone to elaborate. “What else?” Laurie finally asked. The kids gave each other confused looks, but no one said anything.

“Well, what did you all have for dinner?”
“What about breakfast?”
“Well, did you guys have fun?”
“I guess.”

I looked at Laurie and whispered, “This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when your mom offered to watch the kids.”

Start with Your Inner Circle
We frequently hear from other parents of kids with special needs that they can’t leave their kids with just anyone. “In my circle of friends, we take turns babysitting each other’s kids,” says Stephanie Hanrahan, whose daughter Campbell and son Eli are on the autism spectrum. “My kids are familiar with both my friends and their kids so it works out for everyone.”

You can also turn to other adults who are familiar with your child and their behavior.  “I also have a group of professionals who babysit,” Hanrahan reveals. “Therapists and teachers have offered, and they’re great because they got into their field because of their heart for kids.” How does she get those offers? By building relationships. “Make sure you’re approachable and put yourself out there,” she says.

Keep It Short
“Caregiver fatigue is alive and well in the special needs community,” adds Hanrahan. “Bedtime and meal times can be very stressful for parents as well as babysitters, so maybe hire someone for a brunch or something simple and short. This is also an ideal way to test a new or younger caregiver.”

Lately, we don’t ask the grandparents to babysit overnight. We’ll ask for less stressful help, like taking the kids to football practice or picking them up for school.

Go Beyond Basic Care
No matter how well-meaning, potential sitters—including family members—might not know how to both watch your child and nurture their development.

“It’s important to find a hands-on caregiver,” adds Kimberly Downing, a local mother of three and elementary school assistant principal. “Every day I see kids whose development and creative thinking has been hindered by obvious signs of too much television. I urge parents to find babysitters who will stimulate their children, which will then impact their cognitive abilities.”

She recommends asking sitters questions like “What’s your plan for the evening?” to find out whether they will encourage your child to play instead of watching TV. Make toys, books and sensory items available.

A few weeks back, we were triple-booked with the kids, so while Laurie chauffeured one kid across town and I took another, we asked Laurie’s dad to watch the other two at the house for a couple of hours. When we got back, we asked the kids what they did with Grandpa.

“He taught me chess!” Jayden said.  “We’ve been playing it the whole time!” Vivi added. “Wow,” I said, looking at my 12- and 11-year-old who were deeply immersed in a game against each other. “It never occurred to me that they were ready for chess.”

Rely on the Village
It takes a village is not just a timeless phrase—its crucial that we seek out the village, that we put ourselves out there to find like-minded people who will care for our kids. As parents, we dont get many breaks, so the ones we get are important for our mental health. But really, its our kids who benefit the most. They will live richer lives when they have access to safe caregivers who bring new learning opportunities. 

Besides babysitting apps and services, there are other resources where connections can be made, like parents groups and family nights at churchschool and preschool PTAs, and social media groups. Wherever you find good care, the break will be worth it, for both you and your children. 

RELATED: 12 Support Groups for Parents of Kids with Special Needs

The Babysitter Vetting Process

As a hiring manager, I became a huge fan of behavioral interview questions. These encourage applicants to give real-life examples of past behaviors, rather than hypothetical answers such as Im the type of person who… Use questions like these to vet a potential sitter—especially one you find online or through an app: 

  • Tell me about your experience and background. This will allow you to determine how long a caregiver has been babysitting. Ask for specific details like the gender, age and diagnoses of the kids theyve cared for in the past. 
  • What are your career goals? This is a great way to find out if a caregiver, especially a younger one, truly has a heart for children. Look for answers like studying child development in college or going into pediatrics.  
  • Do you have training in first aid and CPR? 
  • Tell me about a time you had to make a split-second decision.”
  • Tell me about a time you had to care for a difficult child. What made the situation difficult? What were some of the tools you used to connect with the child? 
  • Finally, search their social media sites to confirm that the person you interviewed matches the person online.  

This article was originally published in November 2019.

Illustration: iStock