Underlying Reasons Your Nanny or Sitter Search Isn't Working Well, and New Solutions.
Updated: Jul 19
You are polite to sitters and nannies, you pay a competitive hourly rate, your kids are respectful, and they are really neat kids! Still, you have gone through several nannies or babysitters this year and sometimes you feel like no one wants to work anymore. Is there anything you can do? There may be. Consider this list of insights below, which comes from many years of childcare work and childcare agency ownership:
1. Make yourself a pretty regular client who stays on your babysitter's radar. You'll have a hard time holding onto your babysitter pool if you only sporatically book with them. Once you have met a babysitter you like and trust, promptly book with them and establish the ongoing relationship by scheduling future bookings. At least once or twice a month is the minimum. In my past experience as a babysitter, I often met parents who were seeking to expand their pool of reliable sitters. After engaging in a great conversation and a successful meeting with their children, we would have a booking or two, and then I would not hear from them again for a couple of months or more. They seemed to assume that I had become a part of their sitter pool, available for the foreseeable future, while I, on the other hand, had the impression that they didn't really need babysitters after all and I gradually forgot about them. To this day, I'll occasionally receive a text message from a parent I haven't heard from in over a year, inquiring if I would be available to watch their children on Friday night. So much time has passed that, in some cases, the family has one or even two more children than they did back when I met them.
2. Take to heart that working as a babysitter or a nanny is challenging work. It's not an easy job. This work entails meeting new clients at their private household and caring for the most treasured family members, while at the same time quickly observing and learning the rules, dynamics, and expectations specific to that individual household. Rules and expectations vary widely by culture, location, family structure, children's ages, and so on. On top of that, there are so many variations of communication styles. Your sitter or nanny is contending with all of this. You on the other hand are approaching the interaction from the more comfortable place of power, in your own home, where you know all of the ins and outs.
Most of us tend to believe that we are more easy-to-work-with than we truly are, and that we communicate more clearly than we actually do. Your sitter or nanny may misinterpret your instructions or do something that irks you, in a sincere attempt to be helpful or kind. Maybe you only purchase specific natural products and toys for your child, and your nanny brought in a package of Walmart finger paint that you'd never buy. Maybe the sitter didn't understand how strongly you feel about strict screen time limits, and thought it would be ok for the kids to watch a show after everyone played outside. Childcare providers typically mean well. An annoying mistake or a difference of opinion doesn't really indicate a bad match. Parents, nannies, and sitters can learn from each other. Sitters and nannies want to have fun with your kids and share joy. The vast majority of them want you to be pleased with their work, and will strive to learn and understand your needs over time. Give it time.
3. Realistically consider a babysitter's commitment level and manage your expectations around change. Occasional babysitting is fundamentally a supplemental form of income. Because of this, the majority of sitters view their work as transitional, seasonal, or temporary. Now, you may meet a college student who will be in your family's life for a wonderful two or three years. You may meet retirees or neighbors who are happy to help you for years to come. That said, a sitter's tenure could also be for the summer or for the semester. Know that a sitter who can do nights and weekends is not striving to work nights and weekends indefinitely. People generally don't strive to keep multiple jobs if they come across a way to have one.
It is not uncommon to witness parents going to great lengths, sometimes pushing themselves towards the point of exhaustion, in unrealistic efforts to shield their children from experiencing the challenge of a caregiver transition. Each summer, parents approach my agency to secure a babysitter for the two-week gap between the end of summer camps and the beginning of the school year in August. This need is easy to fulfill. However, the challenge for parents emerges when they set their expectations on having this same caregiver transition into the role of their after-school nanny for the upcoming year, too. In an attempt to spare their child a caregiver transition, the parent burdens themselves with the unrealistic responsibility of tying a short-term need to a year-long commitment.
4. Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. Expecting to find one special babysitter for a shy child is magical thinking that puts too much pressure and expectation on one person. Babysitters get sick, they have emergencies, and their priorities can change. Expecting to work with just one or two babysitters is setting yourself up for disappointment and will include canceled plans, lost concert tickets, and resent.
Maybe last semester the babysitter you found did have availability, then they learned about an amazing online graduate program. Maybe they did want to work on Saturdays, then their uncle went into hospice and they need to prioritize visiting him. That's life, and that's why you don't want to bank your plans on one or two people. At a bare minimum, you want to have three or four sitters in your sitter pool.
5. Give yourself enough time to search for a nanny, and truly expect to search and work at finding a nanny. Allow 6 weeks for conducting a nanny search and bear in mind that it can extend to 8 to 10 weeks. It's important to recognize that finding a suitable employee is neither a simple nor a quick process. If you are doing the search on your own without an agency's help, you will parse lots of poor resumes and unprofessional responses. You'll schedule interviews that fall through, meet people who aren't qualified or seem strange, struggle to reach references sometimes, and meet some applicants who seem great and then be baffled when they withdraw their application or stop responding to you. This is a fairly typical search process. You may find 2 great nanny candidates out of 40 or more.
It's possible that some of the frustrations you'll face may stem from the content of your job post. If you are not working with an agency, enlist help from a friend who works in HR or recruiting. Having them review and edit your job posting can increase the chances that your post is engaging, clear, and effectively communicates your requirements and expectations.
6. Use job standards and childcare industry standards. Most jobs include basic standards such as a W-2, tax withholdings, a regular payday, and a pretty set schedule. Many jobs also offer sick days and paid time off (PTO). These standards speak to the legitimacy and the quality of the job. Similarly, most reliable, committed, and experienced nannies seek to work with families who provide a signed work contract, legal payment with a W-2, guaranteed hours, and sick days and PTO in proportion to their weekly work hours. For instance, if you are looking to hire a nanny for a full year, to come to your home three days a week for 25 hours per week total, the nanny will seek three paid sick days and six days of PTO annually. They would also anticipate guaranteed pay for 25 hours per week, even if you require them for fewer hours in a particular week.
In general, the level of commitment you receive from a nanny is reflective of your own level of commitment as their employer. For example: you are seeking an after-school nanny to come Monday through Friday, from 3 to 6 pm, for a total of 15 hours per week. You prefer to pay them through Venmo or cash only, and to only pay for the hours you utilize rather than guaranteeing payment for 15 hours. You do not pay them when you go out of town or when grandparents are visiting and will handle the childcare. Sometimes, you forget to pay them on Friday and they have to send you a text reminder on Saturday. Your choices inadvertently convey that this is not a serious job. It may even come across as a very casual job where absences, forgetfulness, or changes are no big deal. You are most likely to attract people who require more guidance, provide short notice when they are sick, forget things more often, and may move on if they find someone who offers guaranteed pay.
It surprises me when parents establish verbal childcare agreements without any written documentation, despite heavily relying on this childcare as working parents. I am also amazed when I encounter highly dedicated nannies who have worked for two years or more with a family without any paid sick days or guaranteed hours, frequently working late, and feeling afraid to take time off for fear of inconveniencing their employers. These nannies are often young, or face challenging circumstances that caused them to feel as though they had no other choice.
One of the main reasons why some parents avoid legal payroll with a W-2 is the misconception that it's going to be a big expensive hassle. Taxes are such a headache, right? Actually, there are numerous childcare payroll services available that are cost-effective and very easy to set up, such as Poppins Payroll, Homework Solutions, and NannyChex, to name a few. These services can simplify the process and ensure that both the parent and the childcare worker are protected.
By adhering to industry standards and providing written agreements and appropriate benefits, your family can attract and retain dedicated and experienced nannies in a mutually beneficial working relationship.
7. Pay when you cancel. When you book a babysitter, you expect them to reserve that specific time exclusively for you. Consider this as a valuable and nonrefundable reservation that you have purchased. Failing to compensate a babysitter when you cancel, particularly on short notice, damages your ability to hold onto reliable babysitters. By treating a reservation with your sitter as a nonrefundable purchase, you acknowledge that their time has value and that your cancellation has an impact. Providing fair compensation for cancellation demonstrates respect and helps to ensure the sitter's availability for future engagements. At a minimum, fair compensation is 50% of what your sitter would have earned if you had not canceled.
8. Pay more when you have the sitter/nanny supervise a playdate or a carpool, let them know about that extra child and get their consent in advance. A playdate or carpool entails supervising highly excited children, taking on the added responsibility of ensuring an additional child's safety, and preparing extra food and snacks. The presence of an extra child demands increased attention and care from the babysitter. Even if the babysitter is less directly engaged with your child because they are playing with a friend their own age, the overall responsibility remains the same. Furthermore, surprises at work can be disruptive, including unexpected changes to the planned activities when the babysitter arrives to find out they will be responsible for more children. While the day may still be enjoyable, providing a little heads-up beforehand is a more respectful approach.
9. Do not ask to pay later or forget to pay. This really, really damages your sitter relationships. Babysitters and nannies should be punctual, dependable, and engaged. Parents must equally uphold their end of the agreement by paying on time and in full, without exception. Even when you come home to your excited kids vying for your attention, it's still your responsibility to correctly pay your babysitter before they leave. It cannot wait until later. Prompt payment demonstrates mutual respect and shows that you recognize your responsibility to pay for services at the time that they are rendered.
10. Consider if your home is reasonably clean and organized for someone to work there. It's hard to objectively evaluate how your own home appears to someone else. Ask your most honest friend to help you evaluate what they see and give it to you straight. If babysitters mysteriously become "too busy," it may be because your home is not adequately clean, the whole place needs a deep vacuuming, or there is too much clutter and numerous tripping hazards. A refrigerator so packed that items are falling out or precariously balanced, or a lack of child safety measures such as broken baby gates, can significantly hinder a person's ability to work in your home. There is no need to have a Pinterest-worthy home, however maintaining a reasonably tidy and sanitary environment does matter. Your goal is not to achieve perfection but rather to create a space where the babysitter or nanny can effectively care for your child.
Typically, excessively messy homes lack a system of organization. This results in items scattered without a designated "place" to go. This often looks like toys stacked high in bins that are hard to dig through. This often looks like drawers stuffed with puzzle pieces, dried out markers, and unmatched socks. It's easy for half-eaten snacks and spoiled sippy cups of milk to end up in that mix, too. I have found mice in the homes of some otherwise very lovely parents. While a sitter or a nanny may attempt to help you tidy up, ultimately they can only move clutter from one place to another unless you implement an organizational system and your family sticks with it. An organizer's hourly rate varies between $80.00 to $150.00 per hour, and they can help you to establish such a system. It is not reasonable to expect your sitter or nanny to take on organizing projects and systems, because this is significantly above their pay and purview.
11. Confirm that the tools a person needs aren't chronically broken or hard to find. All workers need functional tools to do their job. Has your kitchen sink or dishwasher been malfunctioning for weeks? Is it hard to find two matching shoes, or clothes that fit your child? Are the majority of toys missing pieces and parts, making it harder to play? Issues like these reduce your ability to retain a babysitter or nanny. Example: a diaper change area is a changing table with a pad, stocked with wipes and diapers. If changing a diaper means looking for a diaper, then finding a pack of wipes that isn't dried out, then clearing clutter off the changing table or getting down onto the floor...this is driving away babysitters and nannies.
12. Share in advance when you or your child are sick, and accurately describe the symptoms. A few times, we have dispatched babysitters to assist parents who described their child as having "a runny nose and some lingering congestion." The babysitter arrived to a child with green nose discharge, a wet cough, and gooey sneezes. The parent then shared with the sitter that they had a cold too, which they'd caught from their child. Understandably, the babysitter felt misled and under-informed. This situation is inherently disrespectful because it exposes workers to contagious illnesses, which can have a ripple effect of the worker becoming sick, missing other paid work engagements, and losing income. In such cases, the worker understandably feels that the parent prioritized themselves and failed to consider the impact on others.
I have personally experienced this. In 2020 before the COVID-19 vaccine was available, I arrived at a babysitting client's home to discover that one of the parents had a fever. Their doctor came by to administer a COVID-19 test. I was taken aback and felt let down when I realized that the parent had not considered informing me about their symptoms and the possible exposure before I entered their home. The parent had booked my services because they wanted to rest, and they seemed to believe that it was only relevant to disclose illnesses when their child was unwell. They had not considered the broader implications.
13. Ask the babysitter if they are comfortable caring for your sick child, and pay anyhow if they do not come. When you present a sitter with the choice of caring for your sick child but you don't provide compensation if they choose not to come, this isn't a real choice. It puts the sitter in a position where they have to choose between being exposed to illness, or being unpaid, which is neither fair nor respectful. While paying for a cancellation may not feel "fair" for you either, absorbing the financial loss is your responsibility because it is your child. At a minimum, offer to pay 50% of what your sitter would have earned if the booking had gone as planned. It is an investment in your continued working relationship.
14. Maintain consistency rather than changing plans up unnecessarily. The babysitter and your children are playing a board game, when you come home with a new toy and ask the kids to come try it instead. The sitter and your children are making a craft in the basement, when you come tell everyone to go play outside instead because it's such a nice day. Sound familiar? While you may perceive these changes as exciting or appropriate, changes like these can become dis-regulating to children and disruptive to childcare workers.
15. Consider: are you are in too close of proximity? Although I don't behave any differently when parents are at home, I am more effective and relaxed in my role as a caregiver when parents are out of the house. This is because both the children and I have a clear understanding of the day's plans and the authority figures present in the space.
It's important to acknowledge that no matter how skilled and engaging a babysitter may be, they cannot surpass the significance of your presence and your child's natural desire for your attention. When your home office is located next to the playroom or just down the hall, it can pose challenges as your child may frequently attempt to reach you, driven by their strong attachment to you and the knowledge that you are so close by. This can limit a nanny or sitter's ability to fully assist you, and they may worry that you are dissatisfied with their services. Many people find it overly tedious to work in this circumstance. If the purpose of hiring a sitter is to allow yourself the opportunity to work at home, such as unpacking after moving to a new house, communicate this to the sitter in advance. If feasible, have the sitter take the children out to a park or some other outing.
It's up to you to speak with your child about the limits of your home office and to set and enforce your boundaries. There are several strategies you can implement to reduce proximity: installing a baby gate in the hallway to your office, locking your office door, using a curtain to visually separate yourself from the play area, employing a sound machine to muffle your voice, or requesting that the sitter plan outings away from the house for certain periods of the day. Some parents use color-coded post-its to signal when knocking on the door is allowed. By implementing measures like these, you create a more beneficial environment for yourself and for your child. The worker will be able to perform their duties much more effectively, providing you with the space and uninterrupted work time that you truly need.
16. Consider: do you appear whenever your child cries? Do you tend to hover and listen in? Imagine if your boss appeared every time they heard something, frequently interrupting your work and undermining your ability to problem solve independently. It would make you question why they hired you in the first place. You might find yourself hesitating to ask questions about your work or discuss concerns, fearing that doing so might reinforce their perception that you are less than competent. In this environment, communication and the working relationship would soon fall apart.
When it comes to childcare, there is a distinct difference between typical cries expressing tiredness, hunger, sibling fights, or discomfort, and a cry of emergency distress. Keep in mind that you are only hearing a situation that your sitter or nanny is observing firsthand, which means that they have more context regarding the right actions to take. Additionally, unlike you, your nanny does not become as emotionally charged when they hear your child cry, and this allows them to make more objective assessments of the situation.
A skilled nanny knows how to provide comfort and support to a crying child without attempting to distract them or downplay their emotions. Experienced nannies have greater ability to objectively understand that most of the time, crying is a normal part of a child's development.
While it's natural to want to attend to your child's needs, if the sound of a cry always prompts you to check on your child and offer comfort, working from home may not be for you. It's important to set realistic expectations for yourself. Trusting your nanny's expertise and establishing boundaries can help create a harmonious work environment.
17. Become comfortable giving in-person feedback, training, and opportunities to improve. You see the sitter or the nanny do something you don't like or something you need done differently. You aren't sure how to bring it up, so you:
hold it in and feel disappointed,
send them a text about it and that doesn't go well,
mention it so casually that the childcare provider doesn't realize that it's important to you, or
just have the sitter or nanny just stop doing that thing altogether, without giving them a chance to correct it or learn. Example: a parent doesn't want their children to splash in the water at a nearby pond. The nanny did not know this. Upon learning that the nanny let the children splash in the water, the parent instructs the nanny to just stop taking the children to that pond. The nanny has lost a fun local place to visit and is more confined, instead of having a chance to learn and improve.
Regardless of how reasonable or clear you believe you are being, texting about an issue will come across as immature or passive-aggressive, and your intended message is highly likely to be misinterpreted. A face-to-face exchange with your sitter offers a much better chance of achieving your goal. If the matter holds sincere importance to you, have a brief 5 or 10-minute conversation with your childcare provider. Conversely, if the issue is so unimportant that it doesn't even warrant a short conversation, it may not be worth mentioning at all.
Avoid rationalizing thoughts such as, "A sitter should already know this, I shouldn't really have to explain it, so they must not be a very good sitter or nanny." You do need to explain. Childcare workers interact with numerous families, each with their own set of rules and expectations which can vary widely. What seems obvious or straight forward to you is not that way to someone else. Seeking advice from your parent friends on the matter often only results in reinforcing your own biased viewpoint, since your friend group likely shares similar perspectives and values.
Avoid assuming that the caregiver is not competent because they didn't know certain details. By articulating your family's needs to your childcare providers, you empower them to provide the best care. Providing training is not a sign of criticism, but rather a means of establishing effective communication and a shared understanding. Don't give in to the desire to avoid the issue.
Finally...are you actually right that sometimes people are flaky and their priorities seem off? I sometimes experience this as an agency owner, too. Sometimes team members have earnestly asked me to keep them in mind for extra jobs to earn extra money for something important, then decline high value bookings because they had a long week and want downtime instead. I have to accept that people make their own choices about what's best for them, even when I don't personally comprehend their logic. Once, a member of my babysitting team asked me to keep her in mind for extra work because her cat had a major veterinary emergency and would require ongoing care. A couple of months later I was surprised when she left my team without notice. Most of the time people will not offer an explanation and, fundamentally, we are not due an explanation even though we feel that we deserve one.
In conclusion, we all do things that we don't realize give off unintended impressions or negatively impact others. This can be baffling and frustrating for parents, because a childcare worker in your home isn't likely to tell you if something about your home or your behavior doesn't work for them. They are unlikely to say anything that they think could potentially insult you or inconvenience you. They do not know you very well, and they reasonably assume that as a paying customer you won't appreciate feeling critiqued in your own home. I hope that the insights raised in this article can assist you in cultivating a positive and rewarding working relationship with babysitters and nannies, going forward.