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In The Press

Nanny 911: Seeking Temp Sitters


Printed in the Wall Street Journal - March 26, 2009
By: Shivani Vora

Seeking Mary Poppins in a pinch? Finding a trustworthy babysitter can be a challenge, especially at the last minute.

Nanny agencies promise to deliver competent temporary child care for a few hours up to several weeks. We put four to the test. We tried three local agencies: Babysitter's Guild in New York City, North Shore Nannies in Chicago, Annie's Nannies in Seattle. In Miami we used Nanny Poppinz, which operates in 33 U.S. cities.

We chose these agencies because they put their nannies through a rigorous screening process, requiring substantial previous child-care experience and a minimum of three references. Most are CPR certified. (Other services charge a fee for access to a list of available babysitters in their area. These sitters, however, aren't reference checked.)

Each agency says it matches sitters with a family's needs -- if you have a Newborn, for instance, you'll be sent a sitter who is well-versed in baby care. Fee structures vary, but each service has a four-hour minimum and was amenable to same-day requests, though they might charge extra for the service.

While we left our children alone with the sitters for part of the time, we also stayed around and blended into the background to observe them interacting.

Calling up the Babysitter's Guild in New York and requesting a Nanny for our 10-month-old daughter a few days in advance took about five minutes. We were asked her age, any special requests and then walked through pricing. At $25 per hour for one child, it was the priciest in the group.

As a unique touch, the agency, which has been around since 1940, sends its sitters on jobs with toys and books suited to your child's age. However, we weren't told about this perk.

Our sitter, a woman in her early 50s, arrived 10 minutes early on a Sunday afternoon and immediately washed her hands. Our daughter is going through separation anxiety and cried when the sitter picked her up, but after a few minutes of play, the tears turned into smiles. We found the sitter to be warm, gentle and knowledgeable -- she knew how to make formula, operate the stroller and heat up and feed our daughter her dinner.

Our only gripes: She didn't do a thorough job of cleaning up. She rinsed out the baby bottle, but left it filled with water instead of placing it on the drying rack and was about leave without picking up the pile of clothes hangers on the floor that our daughter was playing with. She put them away after we asked. The Guild's agency manager Heidi Davalos said that "cleaning in all aspects [related] to the child's care is absolutely part of the job and should have been done."

The sitter also didn't offer us any of the toys that she was supposed to bring. Ms. Davalos said that sometimes nannies don't if the child already has a lot to play with.

On a recent family vacation to Miami, we wanted a sitter for a few hours a day for our then 9-month-old and called Nanny Poppinz, an agency with 33 independently owned locations nationwide recommended to us by our hotel.

The Miami office serves the city and surrounding areas, and charges a $40 per day placement fee and an hourly fee of $12. The hiring procedure was the same as with Babysitter's Guild. One difference: We were charged $120 ahead of time for three days of use.

Our Nanny, a woman in her 40s, needed some guidance on bathing our daughter and making her formula when she first arrived, but was otherwise exceptional. She took the baby on walks around the hotel, played with her on the beach, helped us pack for the trip back home and even made her baby food. We asked for two last-minute changes and she accommodated both -- once we requested that she arrive at 8 a.m. instead of 2 p.m. Another time, we decided to go out for dinner at the last minute and asked her to stay late. The agency says clients usually have flexibility in changing timings.

The child-care dynamic shifted from babies to tweens in Chicago, where we used North Shore Nannies, which serves the city and some suburbs to the north. The agency charges an hourly rate of $12 and a $25 fee every time a client books a sitter. Within a half-hour of booking a caregiver for a Sunday afternoon for our 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, our sitter, a college undergraduate, called and asked if we had any questions. She was friendly, and we found her to be experienced and capable.

When we got back home after being out for a few hours, the sitter had walked our daughter to a friend's house as we had asked. Before that she had played school with the kids and watched some television with them. Our daughter reported that the sitter was texting on her cellphone, but that was only while our son was preparing a test for her on ancient Egypt. We considered the arrangement a success since both kids liked her company and asked if she would babysit again.

In Seattle we turned to Annie's Nannies to find a sitter for our nearly 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. We called the day before our Saturday night request and were told we would have to pay a $15 emergency fee for same-day and next-day requests -- on top of the $40 daily placement fee and an hourly rate between $13 and $15, depending on the nanny. (Customers who pay an annual $250 membership fee pay a $20 daily placement fee and get other perks).

A few hours later, our Nanny, a woman in her early 40s, called to confirm the time and address and asked if our children had any allergies.

The sitter was warm with the kids and wasn't at all phased by our son, who is in a rambunctious phase where he runs around the house in circles babbling loudly. When we returned four hours later, she gave us a full report on the children, including telling us what they ate for dinner. She also did all the dishes and neatly stowed the leftovers in the fridge. We were pleased and so were our kids. Our daughter's verdict: "She was kind of nice. When she was gone, I missed her."

Overall, our experience with the temporary Nanny agencies was more than pleasant. The four babysitters we tried were highly capable and great with our kids. We would turn to the agencies again for last-minute child-care emergencies or whenever we need an extra hand.

The most challenging part about letting a new person take care of your kids is the uncertainty of their qualifications and references. These agencies do the work for you and give you assurance that your children are in good hands. And, as any parent knows, that's invaluable.



 
 
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