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Reality Check: Babysitter Anxiety

Q. When my husband and I leave our 14-month-old with a sitter for the evening, he cries -- often long after we're gone. Should we put him to sleep first, and then sneak out?

A. It could work, but what happens if he wakes up? Then he gets to be surprised by a babysitter, and learns that his mom and dad are pretty sneaky and may run away whenever he shuts his eyes.

No, trickery is never a good idea, but putting your baby to sleep yourself may be. We did this with each of our kids when they were young, and it was the only way we (read: I) could go out and have a good time without worrying (see previous question) about the scene at home. In fact, it is only in the last month that my husband and I have left both girls (Madeline, 7, and Ellie, 4) awake with our teenage sitter. Emily now puts them to bed later on, after they've had their extra 30 minutes of video-viewing time, complete with buttered popcorn (so that they can look forward to our going out as much as we do).

So here's the plan. Tell your son during the day that tonight Mommy and Daddy will be going out. Explain that his favorite babysitter will be there to take care of him, but that you'll put him to sleep as usual. Promise to come in and kiss him in his sleep when you get home. (Even a 14-month-old will get the key points here.) Remind him again about the plans later on, as little people have littler memories.

When your sitter arrives, have her read him a book, sing songs, or play a quiet game while you dress. Then you take over alone -- go through your usual rituals, and put him to bed. Expect a silent vigil, in your rocking chair next to his crib, in the darkness, hoping your going-out clothes haven't gotten too wrinkled or drooled on. When he seems to be asleep, tiptoe out, and leave your number with the sitter. If he wakes up crying hysterically before you leave, put him back in bed, grant him another five minutes of guard duty (it's worth it in the long run), and let him sense your calm resolve. (That means you don't even think about giving up and staying home, because children can read minds.)

If he wakes up and cries after you've gone, the sitter will do her best to deal with it. But he just may stay asleep -- he knows there's only a babysitter in the house and not his parents, but he's had the comfort of his normal bedtime routine to help lull him to sleep. Just be sure not to forget the final step in the process: to go in and kiss him on the forehead when you get home. After all, a promise is a promise.