We can book cabs, choose a restaurant or book a holiday through social media. But surely, some things are too important to seek online? Apparently not. These days, many parents are entrusting their babies to strangers via babysitting apps such as Bambino, Bubble and UrbanSitter.
Many do not have a family member nearby and with many grandparents still in work themselves, what are parents going to do: stay at home?
Word of mouth and noticeboards in play centres are being replaced by online resources and the industry is booming. Like Uber, the service can be cash-free, last-minute and 24-hour. Parents log a request, the app notifies local babysitters and the booking can be confirmed within minutes. Some offer qualified nannies, others recommend local people.
For around £8 an hour, childcare providers such as these are enabling parents to keep one foot in the rave. “People are not using Uber to book taxis because they were always doing that, they’re booking them because it’s so easy,” said Ari Last, co-founder of Bubble, which launched last year. “Parents are going out more because they have this tool.”
Charlie Cowan, founder of Gloucestershire-based Bambino, which launched in April 2016, agrees. “Who wants to call around a load of babysitters, leaving messages and not sure if you can go to that party? We think it should be as easy as a friend inviting you out, you hit a button and book your sitter.”
Apps are especially popular for late-night and evening requests and they even do overnight sits. “What’s really increasing is early morning sitters, parents who want a lie in at the weekend. So sitters coming at 6 o’clock or 7am to look after their babies,” Cowan said. “Parents are using it from everything to getting a lie in, to yoga or going to the supermarket.”
Another online service, Sitters, says the number of people using their service has grown by 65% in the last three years. Bookings are becoming more flexible than ever and can be made with just two hours’ notice.
Ruth Maurandy, owner of Rockmybaby.co.uk, says many parents, especially in urban areas, do not know their neighbours and do not have a local network of babysitters to call upon, so have no choice but to use these online services: “These parents are using their phone or tablet for everything else, so why not childcare?”
One explanation for the popularity of online sitters is that some mothers are beginning to feel as entitled to their free time as men.
Katherine Twamley from the department of social sciences at University College London said: “As parents see themselves more as having a shared responsibility for childcare they also see themselves as having a shared right to leisure.”
Caroline Gattrell, professor of organisation studies at the University of Liverpool, whose research has focused on health, work and family, thinks that the high demand for these apps is also partly explained by parents having insecure jobs and needing more flexible childcare. “People are finding themselves on zero-hours contracts and needing to create portfolio careers. ‘Tag team’ parenting – where shifts between work and home are shared between couples – can be hard to manage, especially if parents are single or separated,” she said.
Twamley agrees, adding: “Parents are working longer hours than the nurseries are open and some need to commute long distances to work and therefore employ ad hoc childcare services when something comes up at the office, the trains are delayed or an issue arises.”
But is it too much of a risk entrusting your child to a virtual stranger whose claim to competence can consist of just listed qualifications on a website, or a string of feedback from past clients?
Frances Jones, 32, from London, has a one-and-a-half-year-old son and regularly finds babysitters this way: “I’ve never left him in the day, it’s just while he’s asleep. If you want to have your life back you have to use these services because you can’t constantly rely on family and friends. Having a nanny or a person locally would be ideal, but I don’t have that.”
Jones thinks this should not become another issue mothers can be criticised for: “I think it’s good for my emotional wellbeing to go out and see friends. I need to be able to talk to old friends and people who don’t have babies.”
Others disagree. Mother-of-two Emily Marsh, 32, from Hounslow, west London, said: “I know people that spend a lot of money on them but for me the night wouldn’t be as enjoyable knowing that my kids could wake up to a stranger in the house. I’d rather not go out.”
For the babysitters themselves, these online tools can create a safer work environment. Clare Davies, 41, from Gloucester, started working as a sitter for Bambino in November 2016. She is a full time mother of two-year-old twins and is paid £8 per hour.
“For me, it works really well. I struggle financially and it means my husband can come back from work and look after the kids whilst I do this,” she said. “I used to advertise on a forum and had some dodgy requests about children being dropped off at mine overnight. I got a bit frightened so I stopped doing that. This is a safe way to babysit locally.”
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