Finding a baby sitter on a Saturday night can mean a choice between evils. There's the 14-year-old down the block whose cell phone is practically attached to the side of her head, the creepy grandmother-type whose number you got from a flier, or the overwhelmed friend who offered to help but has two kids of her own.
To make things a little easier for moms and dads in search of a sitter, Internet-based baby-sitting and nanny services are in place across the Web that offer thousands of names, numbers and even background checks to ensure your search in cyberspace yields safe and positive results.
"It's an increased trend, and it provides parents with a first step," said Diane Debrovner, Parents Magazine's health and psychology editor. "It helps you find seemingly nice, eager baby sitters who want to baby-sit."
Debrovner cautioned that while these services are useful and convenient, they're only part of a process that involves parental participation.
'Like Match.com for Parents'
"Across the country, we have 158,000 baby sitters and nannies," said Genevieve Thiers, CEO and founder of SitterCity.com. "It's like Match.com for parents."
Like other sites, SitterCity.com gives parents access to a directory of child care providers in cities coast to coast.
For $7.99 a month annually or $9.99 monthly plus a $39.99 registration fee, parents can tap the site's vast database. Prospective sitters pay nothing to post their info.
While some sites include sitters who range from 13 years old and up, Thiers said that SitterCity makes sure its providers are all at least 17, which the company verifies through documentation.
She compared the process to dating Web site Match.com, which she knows a lot about - it's where she met her fiancé.
Thiers said that while finding someone on the list is a major convenience, it's only the first part of finding a sitter.
"We strongly believe that when using a home care giver that they should be screened in the home by the parent," she said.
To that end, SitterCity provides parents with some tools to ensure that the sitter they choose is the right one for them.
"It starts with references, and there are two in each sitter's account," Thiers explained. "Then we have feedback from other parents. For background checks, we've integrated it into the system, so it's right there and easy to use."
The only offline step is the interview, which she and Debrovner emphasized as crucial.
"You need to interview them," Debrovner said. "You need to check their references, and you need to meet them."
Working Parents' Burden
In addition to providing its services to individuals, the site also allows corporations to buy memberships for their employees, which could help some of the more than 14 million working parents in this country who have kids younger than 6.
Thiers said many of the options available to parents through their employers are inadequate, limited by liability or the fact that while companies might provide parents with financial assistance, they don't help parents find sitters.
"There's now a very easy and safe option for them," Thiers said. "We say there's no excuse for them not to do it now."
But Debrovner said that while a paid membership to SitterCity may be a very nice company perk, it doesn't solve the problem.
"It's not equivalent to in-house child care where your corporation is paying for your child care," she said. "You're still responsible for the cost of your sitter."
But, she added, there's no way to mandate corporate child care when there are plenty of staff members without children.
Working parents, she said, face tough choices.
"The trend of more mothers staying at home is probably a combination of mothers wanting to be home with their babies," Debrovner said, "and because when you look at the numbers, for some parents, it's just not worth the cost of child care to return to work."
A 'Eureka Moment'
One of seven children herself, Thiers said the idea to "launch the online child care world" came to her as a student at Boston College in what she described as a "eureka moment."
"I watched this mother struggling up the stairs, clutching signs in her hand looking for a baby sitter," Thiers said.
She said she offered to help the woman post the fliers, and she knew she was on to something.
Thiers went to work recruiting sitters from Boston-area colleges - 600 in three weeks, the Web site says - and the rest is history.
In addition to the 158,000 sitters on the site, SitterCity is now host to more than 3,000 corporate program participants.
Sticking with Thiers' Match.com analogy, SitterCity has begun a program called "SpeedSitting" - modeled after "speed dating" - in which parents can meet sitters face to face in five-minute sessions, then, with the ringing of a bell, say goodbye and meet another potential sitter.
"There are parents that are leery of using the Internet, and we understand that," she said. "It's hard, and people are making a huge shift right now."
Thiers said she hopes that providing a reliable, safe way to hook up parents and sitters will ease those fears and make services like hers standard