Two theater tickets plus dinner reservations equals the perfect night out without the kids, right? Not quite — you need to add in a babysitter and that can make solving this equation tough. You can solve it, though, with some advanced planning and preparation. By making sure your babysitter understands your child’s interests, strengths, and challenges, you can go out for an evening with fewer worries. It will be well worth the effort, because there are times when you want, or need, to go places with no kids in tow.

What to tell the babysitter

Arm the sitter with the tools and information she needs to be successful. Before the first babysitting session, set up an appointment to talk to her about any aspects of your child’s learning or attention problem that are likely to affect her babysitting experience, such as:

  • Social skills: Is your child very shy? Or is he likely to interrupt? How well does he share with peers or siblings? Does he recognize others’ feelings and react appropriately?
  • Memory: Can your child handle several instructions at once? Or does he do better if directions are given one at a time? (“It’s time to put on your pajamas.” Then, “Now please brush your teeth and wash your face.”) Does he frequently forget where things are?
  • Attention span: Does your child focus intently or flit from activity to activity?
  • Energy level: Is your child high, medium, or low on the activity scale? Does he need constant supervision?
  • Impulsiveness: Does your child think before acting or act before thinking?
  • Language skills: Does a language-based learning disability affect your child’s understanding of what the babysitter says? How might it influence the way your child communicates with the sitter?

Go beyond the bare facts about your child, and let the babysitter know about tricks and routines that keep the family running smoothly. Tell her about potential trouble spots and how to manage them. Use specific examples: “It can be hard for Andre to switch from playing to mealtime. It helps if you warn him fifteen minutes in advance and again when he has only five more minutes to play.” Or “Jeremy sometimes gets overloaded when there’s too much activity. He will calm down if you sit together to read his favorite book.”

Consider also how the change in routine is likely to affect your child’s behavior and discuss this with the sitter. Let her know about your child’s particular behavioral cues and what they mean. “When Zack gets frustrated with a game, he shouts at the other players. That’s a good time for everyone to take a short break.” Also tell the babysitter about your specific discipline techniques, such as how long “time out” lasts and where it takes place, or which privileges may be restricted. And definitely inform her about any behavior reward systems you and your child have agreed on.

Allow some time during this meeting for the babysitter and your child to interact. Even if they met when you interviewed the sitter, another meeting helps put all the new information in context. Plus, the more familiar your child becomes with his new caregiver, the easier the transition will be.

Some other things the sitter needs to know:

  • Medication dosage and schedule.
  • Special communication tricks, such as signals or trigger words you use to get your child’s attention.
  • Specific details about what your child is allowed/not allowed to do.

A frank discussion about your child’s learning disability or attention problem makes the sitter better prepared to care for your child. It gives you the opportunity to present your child’s strong points and also sends the message that such difficulty is nothing to hide.

How to prepare your child

Your child needs information just as much as the sitter does. Talk to him about what to expect while you’re gone — what will be the same as when you’re home and what will be different. Encourage your child to ask questions and express any fears. Work together to reduce his anxiety. For example, if he worries that the sitter won’t know what he likes to eat, plan a menu with him and shop for the ingredients together. Don’t forget to ask your child if there is anything specific he wants you to tell the babysitter about how to take care of him.

Enlist your child’s help in getting ready for the sitter’s arrival. A school-aged child can assist in writing out the list of emergency contact numbers. Younger kids can help gather together favorite games, toys, and videos. Consider planning a special activity that your child can enjoy with the sitter, keeping in mind his strengths, energy level, and attention span. Some kids might like baking cookies or taking photos with an instant-print camera. For others, an outdoor activity, such as playing Frisbee, or something competitive, like a video game challenge, might be more appropriate.

When it’s time to leave

When the sitter arrives, familiarize her with the layout of the whole house, the locations of phones, and where to find emergency information. Give her written reminders* of the rules, routines, and tips and where to find necessary medications and dosage information. (It might be helpful to prepare the exact dosage(s) in advance). Tell your child how long you plan to be gone, and, with the sitter present, what the rules are while the sitter is in charge.

When you come home

After each babysitting session, take the time to talk to the sitter about what happened while you were gone. Find out what went well and ask about problems and how they were resolved. You might be able to suggest another approach to a difficult situation, or the sitter might have had success with a technique you’ve never tried. This information exchange is an important part of your relationship with the babysitter and is an opportunity for you both to learn something about your child.

Ask your child about how things went. Get his perspective on the good points and the problems. Does he wish he had done anything differently? Is there something else he’d like the babysitter to know for next time?

Communication and preparation are the keys to a successful babysitting experience. The more information you give to the sitter and your child, the more confident you will feel each time you leave him in someone else’s care. And that confidence leads to a much more relaxing evening at the theater.

*(Note: You’ll need the free Adobe Reader/Acrobat Reader software in order to download the files.)