Babysitting Co-op Basics

Are you bleary-eyed from grocery shopping with three kids, or ready to collapse after caring for baby twins? Participating in a baby-sitting co-op can provide sanity-saving free time. And if you don’t have a co-op nearby, you can easily start one.

A baby-sitting co-op is a group of mothers who decide to exchange free baby-sitting services. “I believe baby-sitting co-ops will change the world as moms know it!” says Gary Myers, author of Smart Mom’s Baby-Sitting Co-op Handbook: How We Solved the Baby-Sitter Puzzle (Tukwila, 2000). “Any mom can meet with three friends for one hour and create a neighborhood baby-sitting co-op that will still be around when their grandchildren are born,” says Myers. The book is based on the University Place Baby-Sitting Co-op, near Seattle, Wash., available to moms since the early 1980s.

How It Works

Baby-sitting co-ops use a point system. Each mom is allocated a certain number of points per month. For instance, a club could hand out 20 game chips to members monthly, with each chip worth an hour of baby-sitting time. Moms would then pay one chip per hour to the co-op member that watches their children. Moms earning chips use them for their own baby-sitting needs.

Myers stresses that not all baby-sitting co-ops are alike. He recommends establishing a sit-coordinator job. “The sit-coordinator keeps track of points and calls the mom with the biggest point deficit first to give her the chance to baby-sit and earn back points,” explains Myers. The sit-coordinator eliminates the need for chips. To keep co-op duties balanced, the sit-coordinator position should rotate monthly among members, and the person performing this duty should receive extra baby-sitting points. Without a sit-coordinator, moms may have to place several frustrating calls before finding a sitter. Conversely, if a mom runs out of chips she will have to call around to find opportunities to baby-sit and earn back points.

“Participating in a co-op helped us to find affordable, reliable and available baby-sitters, as well as a way to connect with others in the community,” says Maureen Ehlbeck of Atlanta, Ga. Her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter love playing with other kids as their mom baby-sits.

Starting Your Own

If there isn’t a baby-sitting co-op in your area, starting your own is easy. Ask friends that live nearby if they’d be interested in participating. If not enough friends want to participate, recruit club members through a church or post flyers advertising a “Baby-sitting Co-op Start-up Meeting” in libraries or coffee shops.

“Co-ops work best when members live close to each other. You’ll be reluctant to accept a baby-sitting job that requires an hour’s commute each way,” says Ann Douglas, author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare (Wiley, 1998). Shelley Franco, of Erie, Pa., participates in a baby-sitting co-op consisting of families of medical students. “Co-ops are a real bonus when you know few people in your community and you have little money to adequately compensate a sitter,” she says. She feels good leaving her two sons knowing they’re having fun playing with friends.

Successful clubs can be started with as few as three members, but between 10 to 20 participants is optimal. More than 20 members may breed confusion, while less than 10 participants can cause sitter availability gaps. To avoid confusion, Douglas recommends developing clear rules that members can agree on and documenting them.

Visit a potential caregiver’s home prior to having her watch your kids. Observe how she interacts with your kids and her own. Douglas recommends watching for the following red flags:

  • Cigarette smoke odors: Second-hand smoke has been linked to childhood illnesses, including respiratory illnesses and ear infections.
  • A lingering odor of dirty diapers: May signal inadequate sanitation standards.
  • Too much clutter: Potentially hazardous to small children.
  • Obvious dirt and dust: Could trigger asthma or allergies.
  • Pets like iguanas or turtles: Can spread salmonella to young children.

The Drawbacks of Co-ops

Co-op negatives include having to sit for other people’s children regularly, potential personality conflicts among co-op members and frustration toward members who rarely consent to watch other people’s kids or who break the club’s rules.

Sometimes baby-sitting co-ops stagnate as kids age or members rarely participate. To keep the co-op fresh, Myers suggests asking each club member to request at least a two-hour sit per month or donate two hours worth of points as a door prize at meetings. He also recommends that moms with older kids recruit their club replacement.

Baby-sitting co-ops aren’t for everyone. Moms who have their hands full with a new baby probably don’t have time to sit for other people’s kids, but many co-op participants find peace of mind when leaving their children with a friend. “The biggest benefit from a co-op is the psychological relief of knowing that, in a pinch, you will always have a trusted sitter and that the co-op moms will always be there for you for other things, too,” says Myers.