Nancy Howson's first babysitting job literally came walking to her front door. The youngest of six girls, she was 14 years old when a new neighbour approached her parents and asked if any of their children wanted to babysit. From that chance encounter, a thriving business was born, providing her with steady work – $40 to $60 a week – throughout her teenage years.
"There was no reference checking, no checking as to whether I had experience. There was nothing of that," says Ms. Howson, an early-childhood educator in Toronto who, more than 30 years later, continues to babysit on the side.
But today's parents have different expectations. "The face of babysitting has definitely changed," she says. "Gone are the days where a babysitter just comes over and sits and watches a movie. [Parents] want their kids entertained, they want their kids stimulated."
Since creating an online caregiver directory 10 years ago, Martha Scully has seen the quality of babysitters increase along with the rising expectations of parents.
"When I was a babysitter, the parents just left and there was barely any instruction," says Ms. Scully, the president of CanadianNanny.ca, which is based in Nanaimo, B.C. But now parents "want to leave their child with someone more mature, more experienced. And they're willing to pay more for peace of mind."
Sitters working in larger cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, can make $11 to $18 an hour, Ms. Scully says, adding that those earning in the upper range usually have specific qualifications, like an ECE background, a pediatric nursing degree or certain language skills. Her site caters to parents looking for that more mature sitter, only offering candidates who are over 18 years old.
Anne Godbout and her husband have been desperate to find a French-speaking babysitter for their two girls, who are 7 and 9 years old. "I'm francophone but my husband isn't," says Ms. Godbout, who lives in Toronto. "For a child to hear people communicating at home in another language … there's nothing better than that."
To ramp up their search, Ms. Godbout recently posted an ad, en français, on Craigslist in hope of attracting more qualified sitters. "The moment we introduced the requirement for French, we knew we were walking away from candidates who would otherwise have lovely qualifications, such as early-childhood educators," Ms. Godbout says.
These kinds of "hybrid" babysitters – ones who can also tutor, cook or entertain – are becoming a sought-after commodity, says Ms. Howson, who has noticed a higher demand for caregivers with an educational background. The benefits of hiring a sitter who has teaching experience is that the children are engaged, she says. They will cook with the kids, do crafts or take them outside to play – whatever the child is interested in.
Some parents with younger children want a babysitter with a specialized degree, like pediatric nursing. One particular sitter listed on Ms. Scully's directory, a nursing student at McMaster, was in such high demand that parents were willing to pay for the cost of her travel. She charged $16 an hour for daytime care, and $25 for night babysitting. "Having a newborn baby and having a pediatric-nurse babysitter? How perfect is that?" Ms. Scully says. "She had her full schedule. She was living in Burlington and going [to work] in Oakville and Hamilton."
The old method of finding a sitter through word of mouth is becoming more difficult as cities expand, further distancing neighbours who hardly interact with each other. As a result, more parents are going online to search for a sitter, whether it's a fee-based directory like CanadianNanny.ca (which has subscription packages that range from $52 to $120), SOSsitter.ca (with packages that range from $28 to $90), or free classified-ad sites like Craigslist and Kijiji.
When Barbara Egarhos's family moved from their east-end Toronto neighbourhood to the other side of the city, they had to start searching for a new babysitter. Their previous sitter was a 14-year-old girl who had finished a babysitting course and was CPR-certified. "The first time, it was dumb luck that she knocked on the door and gave us her flyer," says Ms. Egarhos. "She lived two blocks away from where we lived. It wasn't hard at all."
But since the move, she and her husband haven't found anyone they feel they can trust to look after their three-year-old daughter. With no relatives living nearby the Egarhoses decided to post an ad on Kijiji.
Ms. Egarhos doesn't mind hiring a teenager again, but with her current search, she has found that most of the applicants are in their late 20s and early 30s and many have a background in teaching.
"Individuals that are older are better at marketing themselves and proving that they are someone who should be hired, rather than your teenager babysitter," Ms. Scully says.
A parent living in an area where Ms. Howson works as a nanny recently asked for her phone number. "She said, 'You do babysitting too? Oh, thank God.'"
"I think [parents] just feel more comfortable that in this age where emergencies can happen at lightning speed, a more mature sitter will react and not panic," Ms. Howson says.
While current babysitting rates may seem over the top compared to just a few years ago, they can still pale in comparison to dogwalking charges.
In Toronto, there is a plethora of dog-walking services, which offer a choice between individual and group sessions. A 60-minute group walk typically costs about $17 to $20, while a private walk is about $20 to $25.
Babysitters with specialized skills advertising on CanadianNanny.ca typically charge $11 to $18. The average teen sitter may command $8 to $12.