For parents, leaving a young child in the care of someone else can be a scary thought, especially when that caretaker is a child herself. But when parents decide to go for a well-deserved happy hour, they can feel at ease knowing that they have the option of hiring sitters who are trained in babysitting safety.
That’s the goal of the Safe Sitter program at Mount Desert Island Hospital, a nationwide course that prepares young sitters for what may arise on childcare jobs. Students in the course learn CPR and other life-saving techniques, as well as what to do if a child is having a temper-tantrum, and how to identify a serious emergency or a minor problem that the sitter can handle on their own.
Safe Sitter was created in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1980, by Dr. Patricia A. Keener, after a nurse’s young child died while in the care of an adult babysitter. The course is now taught around the country, with 10 Safe Sitter sites in Maine.
Safe Sitter’s mantra, “When you accept a babysitting job, you accept the responsibility for a child’s life,” is a “heavy” thing for 11- to 14-year-olds to grasp, said Registered Nurse Wanda Fernald. But the program’s longtime instructor says she is always impressed by how seriously each student takes the class. She has taught the program at MDI Hospital since 2003.
Last June, 11 girls and one boy, ages 11 to 14, completed the course.
“It’s a lot to learn in one day,” said Fernald. “It’s a crash course and they really handle it well. They just took to it like a duck to water.” Fernald also offers a Safe Sitter class to students at Mount Desert Elementary School, where she has been the nurse since 1988.
Ellen Beauchaine, a registered nurse in the education department of the hospital who oversees the program, said that she is “so impressed” by the quality of the program and what the young students are able to absorb during the workshop. “[The program] is setting it up so the [the sitter] will succeed,” she said.
At the workshop, sitters are given a booklet that includes advice on how to handle certain situations, emergency phone numbers and suggestions for calming children down. They are encouraged to take the book with them on jobs as a reference. In order to complete the Safe Sitter program, the student must pass a written exam proving that they grasped what they learned that day.
Rachel Leonard, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Mount Desert Elementary School, took Fernald’s Safe Sitter course when she was 11. “I used to look after my younger cousins and then I decided I’d want to babysit more kids,” she said. “I decided to take [the class] so I could babysit anyone.”
Fernald said that more than ever, parents want sitters who are trained in emergency situations. “Parents are more expectant that you would have experience,” she said. “Parents are asking, ‘Have you had any first aid, are you babysitter certified?’ People are looking for sitters that have learning experience.”
Fernald said that she would have liked her own sitter to have gone through the class when her children were young. “I would have wanted it,” she said. “And now a lot of parents know about it they expect it.”
Last summer, Leonard babysat for three families an average of two nights per week. The children ranged from 4 to 9 in age. During the school year, she babysits about twice per month, in between soccer, cross country and track practices, homework and floor hockey club.
Leonard said that the course prepared her for many different babysitting challenges.
“I think one of the most important things that I apply to babysitting now is how to manage kids, because we looked at how to deal with situations if kids are misbehaving or if two kids are fighting, and that comes in handy very often,” she said.
The Safe Sitter program also focuses on the well-being of the sitter, not just the child they are watching. It encourages the parents of sitters to be familiar with the families that their child is babysitting for, and to have a safety signal that the sitter can use if he or she feels unsafe. A portion of the workshop is dedicated to helping sitters feel confident in negotiating their hourly wage, and how to turn down jobs.
Leonard said that several of her friends also babysit, and that most of them have taken the Safe Sitter course. “If they hadn’t, I would recommend it because it makes you feel like you know what you are doing so you don’t go into babysitting worrying that something could happen,” she said. “It is really helpful.”