Ages & Stages: Inside the World of Babysitting Co-ops

Imagine not worrying about finding someone to watch your child while you run to a doctor’s appointment, take a new puppy to the veterinarian or meet a friend for lunch. Picture your child’s delight at the chance to visit with friends or partake in age-appropriate projects and activities. Blending these beneficial scenarios would surely be a welcome relief for new parents, parents new to staying at home and parents grappling with cabin fever.

If you’ve ever hoped for a few hours a month to spend at will that simultaneously ensure the safety and well-being of your new baby or soon-to-be toddler, take heart. The answer might be right around the corner or just down your street!

Better for Parents and Kids
Stressing the hands-on community effort, co-op children are nurtured and encouraged to thrive. “A child who is missing his parents is held. Babies are read to and given attention by moms who sincerely understand how hard it is to leave an upset baby,” explains Terri Hunold, a Syracuse, N.Y., co-op president and mother of a child who once grappled with separation anxiety issues.

Scheduling the child-care hours to be the same morning or afternoon once a week, parents can count on having up to four hours one day a week for themselves and their child to participate in the co-op.

Safety First
Since they are parent structured, babysitting co-ops continually work to preserve the safety of all of their members and many follow standards set by registered day-care providers and the “Smart Mom’s Baby-sitting Co-op Handbook: How We Solved the Baby-Sitter Puzzle,” by Gary Myers. “We have a plan for fires, tornados and emergency evacuations,” explains Hunold.

Doors remain locked at all times while children are in session and comprehensive first-aid kits are always easily accessible. All members are required to sign children in and out, and children are usually not permitted to leave without their own parent or guardian unless there’s a written note.

Weighing the Advantages
Many parents prefer the personalized aspect of cooperative child care over other child-care options. “Knowing that your baby is being cared for by a friend or neighbor instead of a stranger lends additional comfort to parents who struggle with their own bouts of separation anxiety,” says child development specialist Diana Turner, of Crystal Lake, Ill.

Relying on the support network of other parents with similarly aged babies or toddlers who are dealing with many of the same issues is a welcome comfort for co-op members. “This type of exposure lets parents and children gain unique insight into typical family scenarios. It also creates the opportunity for toddlers and preschoolers to begin mentoring younger siblings or friends,” Turner emphasizes. Gaining trusted advice from fellow parents on situations such as separation anxiety or preparing to tackle taking away a bottle or pacifier boosts members’ confidence and lends reassurance.

In addition, after meeting monthly for lunches and organizing fund-raising efforts, many parents rely on the friendships they’ve formed long after their children enter school and leave the co-op.

Overcoming Disadvantages
As with any group, co-ops tend to have an eclectic array of personalities and characteristics. One potential negative to a co-op is stagnation or members losing interest in participation.

“Personality conflicts among members or children is always a possibility, but learning to accept diversity and confront difficult personalities can be an important tool for parents and young children,” Hunold explains.

Babies and toddlers who participate in co-ops are guided to share in groups and resolve confrontations. When Hunold first joined the co-op, her son’s predisposition to clinging to her was a concern. “Being cared for by the co-op helped him overcome social and separation anxiety,” she proudly notes.

Starting Your Own Co-op
“Talking with neighbors is the first step to organizing a co-op,” Myers suggests. Determining the amount of time potential members are willing to commit to, and the number of children members are willing to care for, provides a stable foundation.

A babysitting co-op can be started with as few as two or three members, although a minimum of 20 members is optimal. Babysitting co-ops are typically comprised of neighbors or close friends; however, anyone interested is usually encouraged to participate. Ann Douglas, author of “The Unofficial Guide to Childcare,” offers sound advice when selecting or beginning a co-op. “Co-ops usually work best when members live close to each other because most people are reluctant to accept a babysitting job that requires an hour’s commute each way.”

One of the secrets to the success of the co-ops like Hunold’s is that they’ve followed Douglas’ sage advice. With a membership list that has included up to 40 members, parents of her co-op have found that spreading word through neighborhoods affords members the opportunity to enjoy contact with neighbors they might not have otherwise met.

Co-ops are typically non-profit organizations and have a board of directors who volunteer their time to help the co-op run efficiently. One reason that co-ops are so successful is the cost for child care versus the quality of the care received. Members are required to pay a nominal fee that generally ranges from $15 to $18 a month. There is also an annual registration fee and in many co-ops, an insurance premium of approximately $30 per year is also required. As with any child care, the dues charged by co-ops offset the cost of supplies, snacks, insurance, administrative costs and (in some cases) rental for the space.

The Strength of Membership
Being member lead, organized and driven, member families take turns working child-care shifts on a rotating basis. One of the many benefits to local co-ops, is the flexibility members have for the remaining weeks of the month. “By only being obligated to one shift per month, parents have free time three afternoons a month for hair appointments, physicals and a chance to shop child-free for the holidays,” says Hunold, who attributes the flexibility and freedom to her group’s success.

The member base of most co-ops is predominately mothers; however, Hunold emphasizes that dads, grandparents and foster parents are always welcome. “We’ve had a few fathers from time to time,” says Hunold, “Because we’ve been in the community for so long, some members return with their grandchildren or as adults who were once child members.”

Gina Roberts-Grey writes about family and parenting issues for parenting publications nationwide.