Keys to Sibling Sitter Success

by Beverly Burmeier

In the childcare realm, what is the next best thing to a live-in nanny? Many parents would say it’s having an older child in the family who is readily available to help care for younger siblings.

But there can be pitfalls if family dynamics are not carefully considered. “Sibling sitting is really the hardest baby-sitting of all,” says pediatrician Patricia Keener, MD, founder of Safe Sitter, a non-profit organization that teaches kids age 11-13 how to babysit.

Closeness at Any Age

Parents can introduce the idea that responsibility is a good thing and minimize sibling rivalry by letting older children, well before they reach babysitting age, assist parents in caring for their siblings, says Colleen Cicchetti, PhD, a Northwestern University assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry.

For example, a toddler can help care for a new baby by washing the baby’s feet and helping keep diaper supplies handy. Children age 5 and older can help with feeding and bathing if Mom is close by. They can also play with or read to the younger child.

The Right Conditions
Dr. Keener says sometimes parents don’t put as much work into helping built-in sitters succeed as they would for outside sitters. She says sibling sitting can succeed if these conditions apply:

• Parents want to teach the older child new competencies appropriate to his maturity and responsibility level.

• Parents trust the child.

• There is a good line of communication between parents and kids.

• The children get along and share considerate behavior, affection, and respect.

“Parents need to ease into sibling sitters just as they ease in to any new stage of development with their children,” says Cindy Reedy, an adjunct education professor and coordinator of early childhood education at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA.

A danger arises when children are not developmentally ready to take on an authoritative role with a younger sibling. Also, parents need to consider the social and emotional impact on all children involved if an emergency does occur, regardless of its positive or negative resolution, Reedy cautions.

Careful planning and understanding your children’s personalities help make sibling sitting a positive experience for everyone.

Key Factors
Here are some factors to consider:

For parents: It’s a quick, easy solution to have babysitters in the home and especially helpful for spontaneous trips to the market or after school care. Yet sometimes parents must accept that their children do not relate well together. Getting an outside sitter might be inconvenient, but expecting the older child to do more than she’s capable of can lead to a breakdown in self-esteem, not to mention chaos in the household, warns Reedy.

Provide training and insights into working with younger children, suggests Patricia Tanner Nelson, EdD, a professor of family and human development at the University of Delaware. “If they’re leaning toward being a tyrant, it could be because they don’t have the knowledge or guidance and discipline needed” to be a sitter, she says. You’ll find babysitting tips at Safe Sitter’s website,

For older children: Sitting with a younger sibling can build closer bonds, especially if they are of different age groups, or it may lead to resentment if they feel parents take advantage of them. Teens can learn responsibility and an increased awareness of the challenges of parenting, but they must feel their authority is respected, their job is appreciated and parents support their decisions.

When given sitting responsibilities, teens will usually be happy with monetary rewards or extra privileges demonstrating that you are grateful for their efforts and respectful of their time. Parents should not lean too much on their teens’ services. “You don’t want to get them tied up with responsibility so they can’t be involved in activities with their peers that will help them grow,” says Dr. Tanner.

For younger children: Some kids perceive that the older child is “bossing them around” or even neglecting them. Nevertheless, if handled properly, the experience can broaden their response to different authority figures and encourage a relationship of mutual love and caring.

Babies and toddlers often respond better to family members with whom they are familiar than strangers who might not know their likes and dislikes, especially when the child is too young to communicate effectively.

Beverly Burmeier is a freelance writer.