Child-care centers and day camps can now resume. But not everyone feels comfortable yet sending their kids into environments where other little ones are running around. And with overnight camps still not an option, it’s hard to get alone time during evening hours. So many are wondering: Is it safe to hire a babysitter?
“Everything during the pandemic is a bit of a risk-versus-benefit-assessment situation — for some, a babysitter is more of a necessity than an option,” says Sohni Dean, an attending physician in the department of pediatrics at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “If you need child care, then you need to find a way to make that as safe of a decision as possible.”
How can you minimize your risk during the era of COVID-19? Here’s what to consider.
Step one in hiring a babysitter: Use common sense. Ask potential candidates if they’ve recently experienced symptoms of the coronavirus.
This conversation should happen virtually. It’s still important to minimize contact with people outside your household, so Zoom, FaceTime, and phone calls are better options than face-to-face.
Once a babysitter confirms they’re healthy, you want to gauge how much exposure they’ve had to people who may have the virus. COVID-19 can spread through presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, meaning it’s possible not to know if you’re infected.
“Start general: ‘How often do you come into contact with people outside of your household? Have you traveled outside of the city to a known hot spot? Does anyone in your household have any symptoms?’” says Dean.
Gain a sense of what their life looks like without prying so much you can’t build trust. Ask if they’re seeing others, but don’t ask for their partner’s name and number. If one of their answers sounds an alarm, then ask if they’ll share more specifics.
“Two weeks is a good rule of thumb — find out where they’ve been across the past two weeks,” says Kate Cronan, a pediatrician and emergency medicine doctor at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. Coronavirus symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
If you can’t find a babysitter whose exposure seems low, Cronan suggests asking your top candidate if they’ll quarantine for two weeks.
“It might not seem ideal, but safety is number one,” says Cronan. “They can always decline.”
If you’re regularly leaving the house, ask if the sitter is living with anyone who’s considered high risk. And be up-front about your own lifestyle, too.
When searching for a sitter, start with people you already know, like a relative or someone from your church, says Cronan. This way you start off with a baseline level of trust and familiarity, which may make you feel more confident that they’ll follow through with extra safety measures.
“A lot of parents are requesting no public transportation right now, so we’re trying even harder than usual to send people who are closer to where parents live,” says Rachel Lee-Nigsch, co-owner of Sitter Select, a service that matches babysitters with parents in Philadelphia. “If sitters have to travel and are able to drive, then parents should make it easier, whether that means making a parking space available or increasing compensation.”
If taking SEPTA is necessary, discuss a strategy. Make sure the sitter is wearing a mask during the commute and using hand sanitizer after exiting. Lee-Nigsch says Sitter Select encourages babysitters to bring a change of clothes, too.
Decide together about wearing masks. Ideally, both the babysitter and the child would wear one, says Dean.
“If you’re talking about young children, that may be scary for them and limit their ability to see emotional cues from this new person, so again, it’s a risk assessment that needs to be individualized to the family,” says Dean. “If the family and babysitter are comfortable not wearing masks, it needs to be an up-front conversation.”
Dean points out that children under 2 years old should never wear a mask, and neither should kids of any age when they’re sleeping.
And make sure you agree about other safety measures, too. Discuss whether it’s OK to take the kids to the park, wearing a mask in public, and handwashing routines that your family is already following.
“You may want to have the babysitter bring their own coffee mug or designate a cup and set of silverware for them, and avoid sharing the same hand towel,” says Cronan. “I don’t want it to sound compulsive, but these are easy switches once you establish them.”
In an ideal world, you’d use the same babysitter every week, and they would watch only your kids. But for many, this isn’t a feasible option.
Here’s the challenge: The more families your babysitter interacts with, the more pathways for the coronavirus to travel to your own family.
To assess risk, ask how many other kids your sitter watches, and if any of their parents are essential workers. And don’t be afraid to ask for the other parents’ contact information.
“Have a group discussion to see if they’re following similar protocols,” says Dean.
Communicate regularly, with ongoing health status checks. Before each visit, schedule a call to check-in about any changes to their health (and yours) and any potential new exposures.
Who you hire will come down to your comfort level.
“If you had to make a risk stratification, parents who work at home and have the babysitter come to their home is the lowest risk,” says Dean.
Taking your child to the babysitter’s home is a little riskier since you have less control over the environment. And teaming up with a neighbor’s family to share a babysitter is a bit riskier than that, since it involves more people.
“A day-care is potentially the most risky, but it might be better than a babysitter looking after multiple people at their house because there’s much clearer guidance for day-cares,” says Dean.
Child-care centers are urged to closely follow safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The guidance can be found here.)