Though leaving your child home without you is important to help your child gain independence and learn responsibility, there are numerous things you’ll need to do to prepare them for your absence. Even leaving them in the care of a babysitter requires preparation, planning, and multiple conversations about safety and appropriate behavior.
This guide is designed to help you set your child up for success for the times you’ll be away, whether they’re accompanied by a babysitter or home alone. The key is keeping the lines of communication open throughout the entire process, so be sure to make your child a part of the discussion as often as possible. The more confident they feel in their abilities, the easier it will be for you to hand your child the reins.
What you’ll find in this guide:
- Finding a Babysitter: Selection, Safety Rules, and Trust
- Going Babysitter-free: Safely Leaving an Older Child Home Alone
- Preparing Your Child to Stay Home Alone Safely
- Preparing and Monitoring Your Home While You’re Away
Finding a Babysitter: Selection, Safety Rules, and Trust
When possible, the best option for a babysitter is often a trusted relative or family friend. It eliminates the anxiety of putting a stranger in charge, and your child has likely already formed a bond. If no one is immediately available, however, ask friends and neighbors for their recommendations. Consider your individual child’s needs and temperament—if they can be a little rowdy, ask your friends if they think the sitter is mature enough to handle it.
Identifying Aspects of a Quality Babysitter
- There are a few key qualities and competencies you’ll want to identify in a potential babysitter:
- They should be age 12 or older
- They should have basic training in first aid and child CPR
- They should have a solid understanding of how to handle emergency situations, and provide you specific examples of how they would respond in these circumstances
- They should have 2–3 references outside of who originally recommended them
When calling for references, ask for honest feedback. Don’t forget to ask about the specifics of the sitter’s visits, such as how long they were there, what times of day they visited, and how many children they watched.
Meet with the sitter in person before hiring them. Introduce the sitter to your child and see how they interact:
- Does the sitter seem comfortable with a child this age?
- Are they friendly and engaging with them?
- Do they talk to your child or at them?
You can even ask them to be a “parent helper” as a test run by having them keep an eye on your child while you’re home working on a task. It can be a helpful technique in assessing how they get along with your child and their level of responsibility. Take note of how your child responds in the moment, and follow up with them afterward.
Once you feel like you’ve found the right sitter, ask them to come over early for their first job to go over house rules and procedures:
- Show them the house, including all exits they’ll need to know in the event of an emergency
- Go over all emergency procedures, including fires, power outages, and any inclement weather conditions your area may be prone to like tornadoes or lightning storms
- Show them how to disengage child-proof locks or latches
- Walk them through the basics of your home security system, including how to disarm and rearm, access to front door cameras, and what to do if the alarm gets tripped by mistake. Don’t forget to mention what could lead to an accidental alarm trip—if opening a window for some fresh air would cause a problem, be sure they’re aware of that ahead of time.
Emergency Information Checklist for Your Babysitter
- Your home address and phone number (if you have a landline)—if they aren’t from the neighborhood, give them helpful landmarks or cross streets that can help emergency personnel reach your home more quickly
- Your cell phone number
- Your destination and its phone number, address, general distance away
- Your child’s name, age, birth date, height, weight, and hair and eye color—in case they get lost
- Emergency services information: 911, American Association of Poison Control Centers Hotline 1-800-222-1222, your pediatrician’s name and number, the name and number of a few nearby relatives or neighbors to contact if you’re
unreachable in an emergency
- Location of first aid kit and flashlights
- Location of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- Location of fire extinguisher and instructions on how to use it
- Go over any medical information about your child, including food and medication allergies
- If the sitter needs to administer any medications to your child in your absence, discuss its name, the time it was last given, the time the next dose is due, and how much to give them
- Leave only the amount of medication your child needs to avoid accidental overdose
- If there are any basic over-the-counter medications they might need while the sitter is there (cough medicine if they’ve got the sniffles, baby aspirin), leave only single doses, and go over exactly which ones don’t require a phone call before administering
Make sure your sitter knows that when in doubt, they can always call you to verify.
Safety for Infants
If your child is an infant, go over specific safety rules for babies:
- Discuss the proper way to calm the baby if they’re distraught.
- Go over the baby’s chewing abilities and which, if any, solid foods they can eat.
- Cover safety guidelines for bath time.
Ensure your sitter understand your rules, even the ones that should be obvious. Doors and windows should stay locked, including during outside playtime. Give them an extra key to keep on their person at all times. If your outdoor security lights aren’t on timers, be sure they know how to turn them on in the evenings. Emphasize stranger danger—investing in a smart doorbell will make it easier for your babysitter to identify who is at the front door and understand that it should never be opened for strangers (nor should they ever invite anyone over) and they should never identify themselves as the sitter over the phone, even if the caller claims to be family.
If you feel comfortable letting the sitter take your child on outings, discuss any specifics and leave them with the phone number to reach you while out. Remind them to never re-enter the house if anything looks strange or out of place upon returning. They should go to a trusted neighbor’s to call the police, and then call you.
Leaving Your Child with a Babysitter
Before you go, make sure you’ve answered any lingering questions your sitter may have. Ask them to store your cell phone number in their phone in addition to the written copy you’ll leave with the other emergency information. Talk to your sitter about ways to soothe your baby if they become distraught after you leave, and have them call you if they haven’t calmed down within a half hour. A crying child is a major distraction and can make your sitter forget safety basics like locking doors behind them, so do what you can to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Remind older children that the sitter is in charge and should be treated with the same respect as you. They should follow the same safety procedures and follow the sitter’s directions without question, especially in an emergency. It’s important for both your children and babysitter to know you trust your sitter so that should a crisis occur, there isn’t a delay in action.
Knowing when it’s the right time to leave your child on their own depends largely on their maturity level, but there are also state laws to consider. As a general rule, wait until age 10 before you consider the option.
Going Babysitter-free: Safely Leaving an Older Child Home Alone
Ask yourself a few questions when deciding if they’re ready to be home alone:
- Are they responsible with tasks at home and school?
- Are they respectful of authority?
- Do they keep calm in most circumstances?
- Do you trust their judgment?
If all signs point to yes, talk to your child next and ask if they feel ready. Tell them it’s fine if they don’t feel ready yet, and that you can revisit the issue when they change their mind. Ask how they would handle basic situations; if they aren’t sure, help them figure out the answers and see how they feel about the solutions you come up with. Keep open communication from the beginning so your child immediately always comfortable coming to you with questions.
Preparing Your Child to Stay Home Alone Safely
Have a practice run before committing to a big outing. Let your child stay behind while you make a short trip (30 minutes or less) out of the house. Stay relatively close to home and be easily reachable; a trip to the grocery store with your cell phone handy is an easy option.
Before you leave them on their own for the first time, have multiple conversations about rules and expectations they are expected to follow. Start with the basics:
- Any off-limits rooms, electronics, or appliances
- Rules for having friends over (it’s best to have a no-visitors rule to avoid liabilities and the potential for mischief)
- What kind of cooking they’re allowed to do without supervision
- Limits on video game, television, and computer usage
- Restrictions on going outside
- Where they can go if they’re allowed to leave the house (a friend’s house two doors down, for example) and rules for letting you know in advance
- Keeping the home phone nearby or their cell phone handy so they’re always reachable
Standard Safety Rules
- No using sharp knives
- No playing with matches or lighters
- Never answer the door unless your child is certain (using a peephole or your camera surveillance system) it is a trusted neighbor or family member
- If someone calls for you, your child should say you’re unavailable and take a message, but never admit that you aren’t home
- No advertising that they’re home alone, including social media posts, regardless of privacy settings are
- Which medications they’re allowed to take without calling you (over-the-counter allergy medicine and aspirin, for example) and which ones they should consult you about before taking
Make sure you discuss not only what the rules are, but why they’re important. Your child may think it isn’t a big deal to tell a caller that you aren’t home, so make sure they understand that even the most convincing caller could be a dangerous person seeking opportunity.
Designate a few trusted relatives or neighbors for them to contact in the event of an emergency. Give your child their names, numbers, and addresses. Whenever possible, give these contacts a heads-up of days or evenings you’ll be out and when your child may be in touch. It’s better that your child has a few to choose from in case anyone is out of town or unable to be reached. This information should be stored on your child’s phone in addition to a hard copy you keep in a designated spot along with the emergency information you’d leave for a babysitter.
Ensure that your kitchen is fully stocked with healthy snacks and easily prepared meals. You can leave ingredients to make sandwiches or salads, or pre-cook a meal they can heat up in the microwave (if they’re allowed to use it in your absence). And don’t forget any other household necessities that they could run out of, like toilet paper and soap.
Emergency Situation Checklist
It might be best to have your emergency situation conversation once you’ve established ground rules to avoid intimidating your child. Remind them that as long as they follow rules and safety procedures, they shouldn’t have to worry. Sometimes accidents happen no matter how careful you are, though, so it’s better to know how to handle a situation ahead of time so that they won’t panic in the moment if it occurs. Hit the big topics:
- Fire safety—They should know where the fire extinguisher is and how to use it. Point out all the smoke detectors throughout the house, and test them so they can hear how they sound and be confident they’re in good working order. Create fire escape plans for every room of the house, even having practice drills. Stress the importance of dropping to the floor and getting out of the house the moment they smell smoke.
- Emergency first aid—Show them exactly where the first aid kit is. (Don’t assume they knows what “in the bathroom” means—is it in the medicine cabinet? Under the sink? In the linen closet? There won’t be time to search in an emergency.) Go through every item inside and how to use each one. Show them how to apply pressure to a wound, how to clean out a cut, and how to apply ointment to a burn. Talk about which situations warrant a call to 911.
- Power outage—Show them where the emergency flashlights are as well as extra batteries. Talk to them about the importance of staying away from electronics in a lightning storm, even if the power has gone out.
- Inclement weather—Which natural disasters to prepare your child for will depend on where you live. If your area is prone to tornadoes, designate a safe spot in the home for them to go when the warning is issued. If earthquakes are a common occurrence, designate safe spots throughout the house and discuss the type of furniture to stay away from when one hits. Even if it isn’t the season for the natural disaster, go over it in detail now and reiterate safety tips when the season rolls around.
- Home invasion—This may be the most frightening conversation for both you and your child, so tread lightly. The fact is, some would-be thieves first knock on the front door before breaking into a home to verify that no one’s there. And since it’s safer not to answer the door while the child is home alone, it’s important to prepare for this possibility. The safest option is to get out of the house as quickly and quietly as possible, get to a neighbor’s, and call the police—establish safe escape routes throughout your house. If they are unable to get out of the house, they should hide in a locked room or closet and call the police. Pick a few “safe rooms” throughout the house with hidden disposable phones so they don’t have to worry about grabbing their phone. Aside from calling for help, they should stay as quiet as possible until the intruder leaves.
Continue to follow up with your child about their experiences while home alone. Make sure they feel comfortable alone, and ask about the problems they may have faced.Reiterate that it’s okay if they had a problem they didn’t know how to deal with—what’s important is that they talk to you about it so you can both come up with a safe and smart solution.
Preparing and Monitoring Your Home While You’re Away
If you don’t have one already, now may be the time to consider investing in a home security system, particularly systems that allow you to check in from your laptop or smartphone so you can put your mind at ease during the first few outings you’ve left your child alone. Go over all the features and controls with them; in addition to disarming and rearming, show them how to access the cameras and use zoom or panning features, as well as how to overcome an alarm that’s accidentally been tripped. If your system is connected to the security company’s service agents, provide your child with any passwords or information they’ll need when speaking with them.
Home Security Safety Checklist
Go through your house room by room to ensure that these safety risks are addressed:
- All hallways, stairways, and exits are clear and easily accessible
- Flammable objects (including curtains) are stored away from ovens, stoves, fireplaces, and other appliances that could catch fire
- Safety plugs are on all unused outlets
- Electrical cords are secured with tape or tucked behind furniture to avoid tripping hazards
- Toys, books, and games are kept on low, easily-accessible shelves
- Non-skid mats are in bathrooms
- Pool is surrounded by safety fence
- Play areas are equipped with carpet, rubber matting, or artificial turf
- Cleaning supplies and any other potentially toxic substances are out of reach
- Firearms are unloaded, securely locked away, and stored separately from ammunition
- Alcohol is locked up
- Your medications are locked and stored—your child’s prescriptions or permitted over-the-counter medications should be available in single-dosage amounts
Regularly check that your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are in proper working condition, and be sure that they can be heard from all bedrooms and floors of the house. Be sure your first aid kit is kept in an accessible spot; you may even want to consider adding an emergency disposable phone so your child can simultaneously tend to a wound and call for help if necessary. Replenish supplies as necessary and replace any expired ointments or medications.
Practice Makes Perfect
The to-do list for leaving your child in a babysitter’s care or without direct supervision is a big one, but each step is critical and well worth the time. The process is a learning curve for any parent and child, so be prepared for some trial and error—practice and preparation will help you both work out the kinks and feel more comfortable with your new arrangement. The more you show your child you trust them, the more their confidence will grow, and soon you’ll both lose your anxiety over solo stays at home.