group of children playing on snow in winter time

By Sandi Haustein

You and your spouse finally agree on a movie you want to see. You find a free weekend night on your calendar. You call up your qualified, reliable, affordable babysitter. Wait…what? Qualified and reliable and affordable? If you’re anything like Lori Huffman, a mother of four, you know “it’s hard to find a good, experienced babysitter who’s old enough to trust and not too expensive.” If, like Lori, the headache of finding a good sitter keeps you from getting out more often, maybe your family could benefit from one of these four types of babysitting exchanges.

The One-on-One Exchange
Trading babysitting with another parent is the simplest type of exchange. You ask a neighbor if your kids can come play while you run to an appointment and then reciprocate when she’s in need. Two stay-at-home moms might take turns watching each other’s kids on Tuesdays so each gets a morning to herself. Scheduling date nights becomes easy when you switch babysitting with another couple twice a month. Jill Savage, author of No More Perfect Marriages, knows two single moms who trade babysitting once a month. One mom keeps the other’s kids from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, and the next month she takes her break. With a one-on-one exchange, the options are limitless.

The Four-Family Date Swap
Kristen O’Quinn, a mother of three boys, borrowed this idea of a four-family babysitting exchange from a friend at her church. Once a year, four families sit down together and schedule one babysitting night a month in their calendars. The families rotate houses, and two couples stay with the children while the other two enjoy their night of free babysitting. The rules are straightforward: the kids have to be fed before they come, and the parents have to be prompt in picking them up. They follow a simple schedule so that the kids (and parents) know what to expect each time: free play, craft, make a snack, and popcorn and a movie. Without relatives in town, Kristen feels the four families in her exchange are especially committed to the project. This swap could easily be adapted for fewer families or for a group of stay-at-home moms who need babysitting but also want to benefit from time with friends.

The Three-Week Group Exchange
Stephanie Trenaman and her husband, Mason, organized a three-week babysitting exchange for 15 young families at their church last summer. A co-op like the Trenamans’ works best for large groups who prefer using a central location instead of individual homes. Each couple works one week as sitters and, in exchange, they can use the free babysitting the other two weeks. To organize a similar program, pick three dates and recruit families by e-mail or through an announcement in an organization newsletter. Divide the group into three and ask each committed couple to babysit one of the dates. If you choose to feed the children, get a head count and keep it simple with chicken nuggets or pizza, fruit, and a cookie. Break the time into 30-minute segments and pick fun activities for each block of time: games, free play, storybook time, music, dinner, a short movie, or a craft. Stephanie suggests beginning your evening with high-energy activities and moving into slower-paced activities as bedtime gets closer. A three-week exchange is a great way for a big group of parents to get to know each other and to enjoy some stress-free babysitting.

The Ongoing Babysitting Co-op
Being new to town and having a husband who traveled frequently, Janie Werner feels blessed by the quality, affordable childcare she received during the years she participated in a babysitting co-op. In a co-op, parents earn points based on the hours they watch other members’ children, and they redeem points when others babysit for them.  Some groups appoint a secretary who keeps track of each member’s hours while others trade co-op coupons or poker chips. Janie feels like geography is a key to success for co-ops: if members live within a well-defined area, they are more likely to use each other’s services. She also suggests capping the babysitting hours that a person can use before working them off so that no one takes advantage of the system. If you are interested in starting your own co-op, visit www.sittingaround.com, a website that helps parents set up and organize their own groups.

Why not ask your friends if they’re also looking for alternatives to traditional babysitting? When you swap babysitting with another parent, it’s a win-win situation: your children get to play with their friends, you can have confidence that they are in good hands, and it’s free. With these four types of exchanges in your toolbox, you are well on your way to finding truly reliable and affordable babysitters.

Sandi Haustein is a freelance writer and mom of four.  She and her husband trade babysitting once a month with another family in their neighborhood.