THE BLOG
04/21/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

5 Tips for Helping Little Ones Adjust to Babysitters

My almost-5-year-old daughter refuses to stay with a babysitter. I have no family nearby and it has been ages since my husband and I went out on a date night. (The last time was six months ago when my mother was in town. She is the only one my daughter will stay with.) We tried leaving her with my friend's sitter, but she wouldn't stop crying, so after an hour we came home. How can I get her used to a babysitter so I can leave without feeling terrible?

I had a friend once who was so uncomfortable with her daughter's fear of being apart from her that she didn't even leave her little girl with her husband. She believed she was being loving and attentive, but it was my opinion that she was inadvertently sending her daughter the message that Mommy was the only safe person in her world. I was concerned about what would happen to this little girl if my friend had to suddenly leave town to care for a family member, or became ill and needed a hospital stay!

No parent wants to leave a screaming child, and we need to be conscientious about ensuring that whoever we trust to care for them has been thoroughly vetted. But it is important that you have date nights, and that your daughter learns that she can be OK when she isn't with you.

1. Find sitters you can trust. Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations, call their references and interview thoroughly to find someone kind, responsible and experienced. Ask a potential sitter how she would handle your daughter's separation difficulties. Would she tell her not to be a "cry baby"? Or is she willing to compassionately help your daughter deal with the grief of being temporarily parted from you? Choose someone who knows how to handle your daughter's sadness, rather than a babysitter who will try to make her feel ashamed for missing you.

2. Play matchmaker. Invite a new sitter for lunch so your daughter begins to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity. You will need to pay the sitter for her time, but it will be worth it. Encourage the two of them to play a board game, cook up a dessert or walk the dog together so your daughter begins to relax in her presence.

3. Build on success. Start by hiring your sitter for a short time during the day so she will not have to manage bedtime. Head out on a short errand and try to return within an hour. It is much better to build on small successes so your daughter starts feeling she can handle being away from you, then to start out with a five-hour dinner and movie night.

4. Understand the difference between a need and a preference. Most children prefer the company of mommy and daddy -- at least in their early years. But they don't need to be with you all of the time, and in fact, they do need to learn how to be at ease in the presence of other trustworthy caregivers. If you can shift your way of thinking on this, you will be better able to deal with your daughter's babysitter meltdowns with clarity and decisiveness.

5. Be clear. If you start to leave and then return because your daughter is upset, you will confuse her and make things worse. Be prepared for her to cry, offer a big hug, reassure her that you will see her soon and talk about the fun things you'll do when you are together again. Then leave. You will have to listen to your instincts about how often you check in, but in general, I would encourage you to avoid staying in constant digital connection. Only after your daughter accepts that for a short time she is going to be untethered to you will she be able to make peace with your absence and settle in with your sitter.

Ultimately, it is in your daughter's best interest to know that she can relax in the care of other trustworthy adults. Follow these tips and you should be able to enjoy date night soon!

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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