Monday, March 31, 2008

Babysitting Food-Allergic Kids

Every month, our Davis County chapter of UFAN meets and tackles a new topic. Our March meeting’s topic was Babysitting. Leaving your food-allergic child with a babysitter is a frightening thought. Will they understand how serious it is? Will they know what to do if the child gets into something they’re allergic to? Will they sneak harmful food into the house? Will they accidentally feed the child something bad?

One option is to never leave the child in the care of a babysitter. But is that the only solution? To help us find out, I invited three guests to our meeting: the instructor of the 6-week babysitting course taught at Davis Hospital, my own babysitter of several years, and a young girl who is just beginning her babysitting career and wanted to learn more about the care of food-allergic children.

Jan Staley, the babysitting course instructor, began our discussion by going over what she covers in her classes. Her perspective on food allergies is invaluable – her own niece and nephew have severe food allergies to a dizzying array of foods, and she has watched them grow up over the last twenty some-odd years. Her memories of watching those kids get rushed to the ER when they were visiting her family are still vivid. So when she teaches the course, she talks about food allergies and how serious they are.

Jan went through her course outline with us, and we discovered not only tips she gives the babysitters, but tips we parents can use when talking to our own babysitters. The course is extensive, ranging from basic growth and development issues for children at different ages, to making a babysitting kit, dealing with problems like crying and sleep patterns, fire safety (she even has firefighters give a presentation on how to prevent fire emergencies and how to handle one if it happens), poisons and first aid, Friends and Family CPR, and tasks like diapering, bathing, managing illness, bedtimes, and meals. We all were impressed and I would STRONGLY recommend that anyone who wants to babysit should take this course! Click here for the class schedule (next course starts May 14).

Then my babysitter talked about her experiences babysitting my son and his best friend, who are both allergic. She never had to deal with a reaction, because we told her (and her sisters, who have also babysat for us many times) about the allergies, explained the EpiPen and Benadryl, and showed her exactly which safe snacks and meals she could eat and offer to the kids. She said she was determined to NEVER have to use the EpiPen, so she goes to extra lengths to ensure she doesn’t cause a problem, including washing her hands (and sometimes even changing clothes) before she arrives.

Finally, the young babysitter just starting her career asked some questions and handed out flyers with her own contact info. She has known my son for years and has even had him at a few parties at her house, which her mother prepared safe foods for, so she’s grown up aware of food allergies and how serious they are. She is also in the generation of kids who have at least one food-allergic friend in every class, so it’s a concept that is normal to them, and something she and her generation are beginning to accept as a fact of life, not an abnormality.

Some of the most important tips we parents heard in the meeting were:

• Preplan meals for both the babysitter and the children. Meals should be cold, not cooked, so that the babysitter doesn’t have to use an oven or stove.

• Show the babysitter where the safe snacks are. Better yet, put them out on the counter and state “Only these snacks!” Make it clear that the babysitter can’t eat non-safe foods either, since he/she will be touching your children and their playthings.

• Show them where the phone is. If you don’t have a land-line phone, give the babysitter a cell phone so they can call you.

• Write down your own home address. If the babysitter has to call 911 from a cell phone, caller ID won’t show where she’s calling from, and if she doesn’t know your home address, precious moments can be lost while she hunts for mail or something that shows her where she is.

• Leave them your phone number, and also the phone number of an alternate contact who you know will be home.

• Tell the babysitter where you’ll meet her and the kids if she has to evacuate for a fire or other emergency.

• Leave a working flashlight beside the emergency phone number and address, in case there’s a power outage.

• Explain when and how to administer Benadryl and EpiPens.

• Leave a detailed note of bedtime routines – time to eat, time to bathe, time to read stories, time to watch TV or movie, time for lights-out. That prevents your children from wheedling or arguing for more.

• If you want to “try out” a babysitter, invite him/her over to watch the kids while you get something done inside the house. They have to take care of everything, but you are immediately available if there’s a problem. But leave them alone! If you hover, you won’t find out how they handle everything. Use the time to get caught up on scrapbooking, paperwork, some gardening, or whatever.

It was a great discussion, and we all learned some really helpful tips for leaving our food allergic kids with babysitters. More importantly, we learned it’s possible to do it safely and without panicking if we just take a little extra time to prepare and explain.

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