When Jenny Iverson and her husband left Utah last year, they didn't just lose a tight-knit community of relatives. They lost their network of free baby sitters.
To make occasional "date nights" with her husband affordable, Iverson made a pitch to her new friends in Massachusetts: If you watch my kids, I'll watch yours.
Six months later, a baby-sitting co-op with four other families is flourishing, with each set of parents taking a slot in the rotation for a Saturday night, saving them the cost of a baby sitter. Iverson estimates she's saving $100 per month and gaining time for hikes and inexpensive dinners. "As a stay-at-home mom, my job is to make the money stretch as far as I can."
As parents face reduced work hours, lower wages, layoffs and uncertainties stemming from the recession, a growing number of families are turning to baby-sitting swaps to reduce what they pay local teenagers and college students to look after their children.
To be sure, parents have partnered to share the load of child care for years, but the economy has broadened the appeal. Traditional baby sitters say business is down and some offer to work for lower rates to encourage parents seeking savings during the recession to use their services. But co-op costs can be hard to beat. Baby sitters often charge $10 per hour or more.
Gary Myers of Smart Mom's Babysitting Co-op says the lingering economic downturn triggered a spike in requests for a free guide that his Tacoma, Wash.-based groups offers to parents seeking to set up new groups. Traffic on his Web site has also doubled.
"Most moms have one or two people that are good friends, that are sitters, and a co-op is just like having 10 or 12," Myers said. "The important things for a mom is that her kids are watched, and are safe and it's a good care environment."
Co-ops sometimes are formed casually, among friends. But an increasing number are cropping up in online parent forums, local moms groups and through online postings on such sites as BabysitterExchange.Com or Craigslist.com.
And while money is not exchanged, there is often a system of earning or spending points to ensure parents involved with various co-ops are treated fairly.
A sitting parent, for example, might earn one point per each child, with a sliding scale for more kids. Some co-ops offer extra points for baby-sitting late into the night, picking up a child or traveling to another home. Others restrict the number of points awarded after children fall asleep.
Mary Pugh, a stay-at-home mom of two and a member of Iverson's co-op, said the creative arrangement has helped her avoid the hassle of finding reliable baby sitters and given her family financial breathing room.
"Just that sense of relief that there's just one thing we don't have to budget for, we don't have to worry about," Pugh, 27, said. "This is nice because we still have so many student loans and lots of things to pay off."
During a recent baby-sitting gig, Pugh had a small group, just her 3-year-old son, Jack, 1-year-old daughter, Marian, and 3-year-old Eva, whose parents dropped her off with a hot dog, apples and other snacks to tide her over for the 3 1/2 hours they would be away.
Pugh admitted she was initially intimidated by the idea of feeding, pacifying and playing with up to eight children in the co-op until 8:30 p.m., but she gave it a try.
Follow the rules
The rules and restrictions on co-ops vary. Those among close friends can be informal, while others can be detailed, particularly regarding child safety.
Some require sitters to disclose whether there are guns or swimming pools in the home. Others require parents to indicate if a child has allergies, offer details for each kid's bedtime routine, what it takes to calm them down if they cry and to disclose whether there are pets or smokers in their home.
Other co-ops require references and house visits, said Naomi Hattaway, a mother of three and member of a Cleveland-based group.
The group has rejected multiple applications because none of the existing members could vouch for the applicants, said Hattaway, 33.
"During the summer of last year, we probably had two or three new members each week that requested to join," said Hattaway, who says she saves at least $200 a month. "People have used it more as the economy has gotten worse."