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The Ultimate Caregiver?

When Bonnie Liebman was expecting her first child ten years ago, her mother offered to baby-sit once Bonnie returned to work. "Initially, I wasn't sure about it," says Liebman, a nutritionist in Chevy Chase, MD. "I didn't want to seem dependent. But as soon as my daughter was born, I knew there was no one I'd rather have caring for her." Today, Liebman's parents take care of all three of her kids during work hours.

Twenty-five percent of American children with working moms are cared for by a relative. The arrangement might sound ideal, but it's not without its challenges. (Would you be able to fire your own mother?)

So consider some expert advice:

  • Don't pressure your parents. "Relative-provided care works only when everyone involved wants it to work," says Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign, a national nonprofit advocacy organization based in New York City. "Grandparents who get roped in may be perfectly conscientious  -- diapering, feeding, and bathing the baby  -- but if they don't really enjoy what they're doing, the child will sense that and won't be happy."

  • Choose the right setting. Your place or your parents'? Working moms and dads whose parents are happy to have a toddler in their home daily may be in luck. But if that means waking him up at 5 a.m. and driving him an hour away, the trade-off probably isn't worth it. Other considerations: If care takes place in your home, your folks won't have to live in a childproof zone around the clock, and your kids will have easier access to neighborhood playdates.

  • Update your parents' parenting. A compelling reason to ask Mom and Dad to care for your child is that you know and trust them. "But there have been major changes in child-safety practices," says Anne Jaroslawicz, a New York City area marketing consultant whose mother cares for her 3-year-old son. "No matter how good your mother's instincts are, she probably needs some instruction on how to secure a car seat."

  • Set discipline guidelines. Be clear about when and how you want your child reprimanded or punished. If you know they can't say no to him, you should probably consider other day-care choices.

  • Make sure the care keeps up with your child's needs. "If your mother becomes too tired to chase after a very active 2-year-old, you need to accept that and find someone who can," says Wohl.

  • Respect your parents at least as much as you would any baby-sitter. If you're paying them, pay on time. If you'll be home late, let them know. And always, always remember to say thank you.