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Forming a Babysitter Co-op

The last time Jacqueline Jugenheimer needed a sitter for her son Constantin, 11 months, she had a qualified caregiver lined up after just one phone call. And the help was free. The reason: She, along with 12 other families, belongs to the Westside Babysitting Co-operative, in Madison, WI.

Co-ops are groups of parents who take turns caring for one another's kids. Members watch someone else's child to earn credits, then "spend" those points when they need a sitter of their own. They can use the service as little or as often as they want.

To start your own group:

Find three like-minded friends.
You can launch a co-op with as few as four families and one short meeting, says Gary Myers, author of Smart Mom's Baby-sitting Co-op Handbook. (Your kids don't have to be the same age, but it's a bonus.)

Create an accounting system.
You might award one point for every 15 minutes of babysitting, regardless of how many kids you care for. Or give an extra point per child, says Myers. Start everyone off with, say, eight to ten points in the bank. Keep track of the balances in a logbook or "pay" one another with printed coupons.

Agree on the ground rules.
Will you allow a family to run a negative balance in a pinch? How many kids can one mom supervise at a time?

Set safety standards.
Decide on childproofing requirements and what you'll do in case of an emergency.

Choose a coordinator.
Most clubs rotate the position - the person you call when you need a sitter, who then finds an available family and records the credits for both of you  -- each month. Some make it a full-time post and award the job holder extra points.

Establish new-member criteria.
Should the family live within a certain radius? Will you require a unanimous vote before accepting them?

Schedule periodic meetings.
These need be only every two to three months, but such get-togethers will ensure that the group runs smoothly and will provide a forum for airing any problems. Then sit back and relax, knowing you can now have a little kid-free time whenever you need it.