Vet Your Vacation Babysitters
Whether you’re a relaxed mom or have a license in helicopter parenting, it’s worth planning out your childcare in advance of a family trip. Along with calling potential caretakers and checking references, you might want to consider a masters in anthropology.
Why? Childcare is cultural, my friends.
The other day, mom and travel writer Anna Davies was chatting with her 3.5-year-old at home in Jersey City when her daughter dropped a bomb of sorts: “She casually asked me when she would ride on Gaby’s motorcycle again.” Gaby was the Davies’s regular babysitter in Costa Rica—someone she’s used on vacations for the last three years.
“I was floored.”
A quick fact check with Gabby revealed that she had taken the kiddo in the baby carrier on the back of her motorcycle—and probably hadn’t thought much of it. “It’s not uncommon to do that in the Costa Rican town we visit, but it’s never something I would have thought to mention not to do with my own child,” says Davies.
I’m not a fan of fear mongering, and I highly recommend hiring babysitters on family trips (you, dear parent, need a vacation too). Davies’s story though illustrates an important point: Childcare is cultural. “In a foreign country, you may have to spell out rules that may seem like common sense back home,” she says. In other words, along with your regular list of babysitting essentials and reminders, it’s important to have an understanding of where you and your caretaker are coming from, and consider how that might influence the way you each think about childcare.
So how do you find reliable babysitters on vacation, and how should you vet and prep for them? Let’s dive in—assuming your babysitter can swim.
Plan in Advance
Even if you’re completely comfortable with the idea of using a babysitter on vacation, it’s a good idea to organize your childcare ahead of time. That means finding and booking babysitters before you get to a destination—click here for tips on how to find quality childcare in other cities and countries—and vetting your options long distance.
Create Your Child’s Welcome Packet
Write down your kiddos’ schedule and essentials on paper, and consider including a translation to your sitter’s native language, even if she’s bilingual. (Google Translate should do the trick.) Do this in advance, as I can promise you, you’re not going to have time to think it through on the go, and you probably won’t have easy access to a printer. Include things such as your contact information and your children’s schedule and medications/allergies, as well as any pointers or reminders you think are particularly important.
Vet Vet Vet
I’ll be the first to admit that I can be pretty relaxed about hiring babysitters in general, even on trips. A few things scare me—pools, balconies, elephants in musth—but otherwise I tend to think that a sitter who actually enjoys taking care of children has a leg up on me. That being said, the better you know your caretaker, the less worried you are going to be while you’re out on the town, and de-stressing is precisely the point. Once you’ve found a caretaker or a babysitting agency, “always, always ask for and check references,” says Candi Vajana, a member of the board of directors of the International Nanny Association (INA). “Make sure she’s CPR and first aid trained if possible—this, too, is uncommon in some countries—and have your list of questions ready before you get on the phone with her.” FaceTime or video calling the babysitter is certainly acceptable as well. “And I always recommend asking the caretaker to bring a driver’s license or ID,” says Vajana. “You want to make sure that the person who shows up is the person you are expecting.” (This scenario might sound like a scene out of a horror movie, but it could be the result of something as simple as a poorly run nanny agency mixing up paperwork. Still, it’s unacceptable.)
Address the Obvious
Don’t assume your Peruvian or French babysitter has Baby 411 or the What to Expect series memorized. “Always ask questions, even if they seem obvious to you,” says Vajana. “I recently witnessed a family hand over their toddler-aged children to a local nanny in a beach location,” she continues. “The parents assumed the nanny could swim. She couldn’t.” Crazy? Not really. Even something like learning to swim is cultural. Take Southeast Asia, for example, where many parents believe teaching their kids to swim increases their risk of drowning. (This cultural curiosity got a lot of attention during the Thai soccer team cave rescue in July 2018.)
Even here in the U.S., I’ve hired babysitters from other countries, assuming they know what many of us now consider baby basics, such sleeping in an empty crib. When my son was four months old, I came home to him so cozied up in stuffed animals, I felt like I was trying to find him on a page in Where’s Waldo. “He was cold,” my sitter said apologetically. Lesson learned. Though I did hire her again because she also cleaned my kitchen.
Add An Hour
Even if you’re watching your pennies, hire your babysitter for a few extra hours before you jet off, or rope her into an afternoon play date. This gives you the opportunity to ask questions, provides time for a thorough rundown of schedules and essentials, and allows you to get a taste of their caregiving style.
Get the Kids Ready For Bed
When I hire my regular babysitter at home, I have her come over around six, partly because I want her to do the hard stuff—the feeding, the bathing, the “go-back-to-bed!”-ing. When working with a new nanny on a trip though, I try to do these things in advance. Alternatively, I tell her to skip things that give me pause—like a bath—all together.
Stay in Touch
Requesting texts and photos is somewhat universal these days, so don’t hesitate to ask if you want regular updates. “A phone and tablet setup can also be helpful,” says Davies. “You can connect the two via FaceTime, nanny cam style.”
If hiring a babysitter makes you nervous but you want to push yourself, you don’t have to go far. “Dine downstairs at the hotel,” says Davies. And if you’re truly panicking, come up with another plan such as a lunch date while your kiddo naps in a stroller, she suggests. You could also consider bringing a nanny or relative with you, though you’ll likely pay a small fortune in dollars or—if you choose to bring grandma—guilt.
Remember, This is a Good Thing
I can’t tell you how often I hear the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation” after friends and acquaintances return from a trip with their kids. I get it. Family travel can be exhausting. That’s precisely why I’m a firm believer that it’s good for you—and for your kids—to get some adults-only time on your trip, ideally at a splurge restaurant or face down on a massage table.
There’s something else I like about hiring babysitters abroad. While some cultural childcare differences may encroach our interpretation of safety, in most cases they are interesting, if not downright inspiring. I’ve often been struck by the amount of love and affection sitters from other cultures intuitively shower on my children in a way that’s less common here in the U.S. A few have even asked me to send photos and updates after we return home.
As for the occasional cultural oddity, it’s usually harmless, not to mention a good story. When living in Shenzhen, China, mom and former expat Lauren Chao left her son with a new ayi, or sitter, while she and her husband went out for dinner. “He’s a great sleeper, but when we texted throughout the night she told us he was still awake.” Chao says. “When we got home at 11:30 PM, we realized why: Every light in his room was on, and his bedroom door was wide open.” In China, it turns out, most children stay up late by American standards. “And in turn,” says Chao, “My ayis told me our son slept way too much.”
Then there were the bottomless potty training pants—another good story, for another time.