Whether you're a new parent and stand the thought of even allowing someone else to hold your child or a veteran caregiver who can't wait to get a break, the search for the right childcare provider can be tedious and downright grueling. If you click with a provider during the interview, then it's understandable that you might not want to spend endless hours calling references, running background checks, and asking pointed questions. However, your family's safety hangs in the balance. Children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know than a stranger, and high-profile nanny abuse cases make it clear that a failure to screen a childcare provider can prove disastrous.

To properly screen a new childcare provider, you should, at minimum, screen them before they come to your home, conduct at least one in-depth interview, do a background check, observe them with your child, and call references. Here's how to get the most out of each stage of the process.

1. Do an initial screening.

Most people find childcare providers either online or by word-of-mouth. In either situation, you shouldn't invite a stranger over to your home for an interview without knowing anything about them. Doing so is not only dangerous, but also a waste of your time if you can't pay the provider's rates, don't like their childcare philosophy, or find that there are scheduling issues. Pre-screen your provider with some simple questions about daily duties and pay to ensure that you're a good fit for each other. You should also ask about the provider's previous experience, childcare philosophy, and education.

The key here is not just to listen to the answers, but also to determine whether you feel comfortable with this person. Do they seem annoyed by your questions or thrilled to talk about their work? Are they friendly and warm, or evasive and distant? Trust your gut, and move on if you encounter any red flags.

2. Do a background check.

Ask about the childcare provider's criminal history, reminding them that you appreciate honesty. Check their claims by asking them to submit to a background check. You don't want to risk accidentally hiring a sex offender or a person with a history of DUIs. 

3. Interview a childcare provider.

If you want to exercise maximum caution, meet the provider at a coffee shop or on some other neutral ground for your preliminary interview, then conduct a second interview in your home if you feel comfortable moving forward. Some questions to ask during your interview include:

  • Do you have CPR and first aid training? What would you do in the event of an emergency?
  • Tell me about your previous childcare experience?
  • What discipline strategies will you use?
  • How will a typical day with my child look?
  • What was your worst childcare experience? Your best?
  • What training and education do you have in childcare?

It's also wise to ask any questions specific to your child's needs. If your child has autism, for instance, consider asking whether the provider has experience working with children who have special needs.

4. Observe the babysitter or nanny with your child.

After you've gotten comfortable with the provider through an interview, it's time to watch them interacting with your child. It's important not to make this a high-pressure experience. Don't stand over the provider's shoulder and watch them play, taking notes. Instead, try just bringing your child downstairs, introducing them, and then letting the two play together for a few minutes. You can learn a lot about the provider by how they react to your child, and your child may even have some insights about whether this person is a good choice. After all, a childcare provider who is not excited to spend some unexpected moments with your child may not particularly like children. You want to hire someone who will provide loving care.

5. Check childcare provider references.

Don't call references until you've interviewed the provider and everything else checks out. A good childcare provider respects her former employers by not freely giving out their contact information to every potential job contact. Instead, she should wait until the interview, so don't demand references before your first meeting.

When you're ready to call references, consider asking some of the following:

  • What was the best thing about this provider? The worst? Someone who is unwilling to say anything negative, or who is highly non-specific in their language, might be a friend or family member, not an actual reference.
  • Would you recommend this provider to someone else?
  • How would you characterize her interactions with your children?
  • Have you had any conflict with this provider? How did you manage it?
  • Did you feel that your children were safe with this provider?
  • How long did this provider work with you? This question helps you eliminate any fake references, who may give different information from the provider. Be prepared, though, for some discrepancies. If the provider says they were there for a year and the employer says it was 20 months, one or both may simply be off by a few weeks.