How to Babysit Preschoolers

(Child Needs, Discipline & Common Mistakes)

Different age groups of kids have different needs when it comes to babysitting, and preschoolers are no exception.

How do you babysit preschoolers? A big part of babysitting preschoolers is giving them independence. Let them try to do things on their own to build up confidence and autonomy. Kids at this age crave information and want to feel heard, so expect lots of questions. You'll need to learn effective discipline strategies for dealing with temper tantrums, or ideally, you'll be proactive to avoid unwanted behavior before it happens.

In this article, you'll learn how to babysit preschoolers. I'll share what preschoolers want and need, and what's important to them. I'll also share some common mistakes to avoid.

Babysitting Preschoolers

Preschoolers are kids between the ages of 3 and 5 years old.

They're fun to babysit because at this age they're really starting to become little people with their own thoughts and opinions.

Preschoolers can also be a bit intimidating for newer sitters though because they're full of energy, and they're often willing to really test the limits of the authority figures in their lives.

But with a positive attitude and a willingness to fully dedicate your attention to the child for a few hours, you can enjoy babysitting preschoolers and become a better and more experienced babysitter as a result.

Get To Know The Child's Needs

Before you start babysitting a preschooler, you want to find out all about the individual child.

Kids at this age are still developing and may have problems like anger management issues or may still have trouble speaking. They may still have potty-training issues or diapering needs as well.

Learn more about age-related child development in our babysitters guide to child psychology.

You also want to be aware of any health issues like allergies, epilepsy, or asthma that you may encounter while babysitting them. You'll need to know any procedures you'll need to perform if any such medical issues arise.

Getting to know the child's likes and dislikes is important too. Ask parents for information like what they use to distract their child, what their bedtime is and what their favorite bedtime story is, what snacks they're allowed and which foods they prefer, any fears they have, and anything else you can think of.

What To Pack When Babysitting A Preschooler

When you're going to any babysitting job, I recommend bringing along your babysitting binder. This holds important documents like your babysitting handbook, important information, plus some fun items.

If you don't have your own babysitting binder yet, check out my article: The Ultimate Babysitting Binder to learn what to put in one.

Besides your babysitting binder, it's important to bring your cell phone for emergencies. It can also be useful to call or text parents to get answers to questions that aren't an emergency but are still important, like where to find a child's particular toy they're looking for. Your phone can also double as an alarm to remind you when it's time to make dinner or put the kids to bed.

Check with parents first to see if you're allowed to bring your own activities or snacks. Some parents have specific guidelines for their kids and would rather that you use what's already in the house.

But if it's okay, bringing some of your own toys can add some extra excitement and make things more interesting for the kids you're babysitting. A small treat they don't normally get to have is a good incentive for them to behave as well!

For a more complete list of items to bring see our guide: What should I bring to a babysitting job?

Give Preschoolers Independence

While preschoolers still need help with a lot of things, they're capable of a lot more than you think. A big part of babysitting preschoolers is helping to foster that sense of independence.

Encouraging independence will help build a preschooler's confidence and make them more able to do things by themselves in the future.

Kids have a tendency of living up to our expectations. At many preschools, kids are expected to hang up their jackets, put away their plates after a snack, and other basic tasks.

Try to avoid doing things for a preschooler that you're babysitting that they can probably do on their own. Sure, it's probably easier and quicker for you to just do it yourself. But that won't help a child grow and learn to do things for themselves.

Give preschoolers a chance to solve simple problems on their own before you step in. If they're trying to get a book off the shelf or put together a toy but seem to be struggling a bit, give them a minute to figure it out. As long as the activity they're trying to do is safe, let them try to figure it out on their own.

Avoid fixing things that a child has tried to do. If you get a preschooler to make their own bed, don't smooth out the sheets if they haven't got it exactly perfect. You don't want to redo what the child has already done unless it's completely necessary. Otherwise, you might make them feel that the job they've done isn't good enough, which could discourage them in the future. This can be really hard if you're a bit of a perfectionist like me, but kids need a chance to experience success.

If you're not sure if the child is up for a task, you can ask them a question like "Do you want me to help, or can you do it yourself?" This tends to appeal to a preschooler's sense of pride because kids at this age always want to try to do things for themselves.

Don't feel guilty about assigning minor chores to preschoolers. They can help with little tasks like helping to make their lunch or cleaning up the dishes afterward. A preschooler is perfectly capable of putting their own ingredients in a sandwich, although you'll want to cut it for them. They can pour a glass of water or milk for themselves with a little help. Don't be afraid to get messy!

A preschooler can get themselves dressed, take clothes out of the dryer, and other basic tasks that will really help to build their confidence. Just be sure to make it a reasonable task.

If you give a preschooler a task to do, it should be real work that actually contributes. Even a preschooler can tell the difference between an actual chore and just giving them a task to keep them busy!

7 Tips For Disciplining Preschoolers

As a babysitter, you need to respect the wishes and discipline style of the parents. But here are some tips to help cool down preschoolers when things start to get a little out of hand.

1. Redirect Them To Something Else

If a preschooler is pulling their sibling's hair or jumping on the couch, try to distract them and redirect them to something more productive. For example, ask them if they want to read a story together or draw a picture.

2. Hold Them Responsible

If a preschooler is capable of doing something wrong, then they're usually able to help make it right too.

When they knock down their brother's tower of blocks, get them to help rebuild it.

Did you catch them coloring on the walls? Get them to help you wash it off before their parents come home. (That one is probably partially on you for not watching them closely enough!)

3. Avoid Tantrums When Parents Say Goodbye

Some preschoolers have separation anxiety and will freak out when their parents leave.

If the kid you're watching is anxious about their parent leaving, get the parent to give them something to remind them that they'll be back. It can be a picture of them or even a tissue that the parent has kissed and given to the child before they leave. Just having a physical object to hold on to can help make preschoolers feel less nervous and may prevent a full-blown temper tantrum.

4. Don't Delay Discipline

If you're going to discipline a preschooler, you want to do it right when you catch them misbehaving.

At this age, kids have trouble understanding consequences in the future. So it's not very effective to say you won't take them to the park next time you babysit them if they don't behave. To the preschooler, the punishment will seem random and undeserved, and won't prevent further behavioral problems. By the time the punishment comes around, the child will have totally forgotten what they originally did to deserve it.

So any discipline you give to preschoolers should be immediate. That way the cause and effect relationship of their actions will be clear.

5. Avoid Time-Outs

Time-outs used to be a popular way to discipline bad behavior in kids, but that isn't the case so much anymore.

Time-outs are certainly an improvement over the previous option, which was physical punishment.

Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine explains in his book No Drama Discipline that kids experience time-outs as a rejection, even if you give them kind words and hugs afterward. He states that time-outs basically convey to children that they'll have to handle any mistakes or difficult feelings all by themselves.

Time-outs are unlikely to stop misbehavior in the future. In fact, studies have shown that it makes them more likely to repeat a negative behavior after the time-out is over. Plus it leaves the child feeling anxious, confused, and upset.

6. Use Time-Ins Instead

Time-Ins are similar to a time-out. But the important difference is that you stay with the child during a time-in and support them until they calm down.

That way they'll feel like someone is there to help guide them through it and they don't need to do it alone.

During a time-in, it's still a good idea to leave the area where the misbehavior occurred and go to a different room to sort of "reset" the situation. A time-in can just be sitting together on the couch, talking about the situation and how both of you feel, or even just a long hug.

Time-ins tend to take longer than a time-out, but the child will leave it feeling calm, safe, and ready to listen again.

Is the child you're babysitting still being a nightmare even after a time-in? Check out my article: How to Babysit a Difficult Child for other effective discipline strategies.

7. Give Second Chances

Sometimes a great way to correct unhelpful behavior in a child you're babysitting is to stop it and ask the child to try again.

When kids are acting out, give them a chance for a "do over" to make a better choice before resorting to discipline.

If the child doesn't seem sure of what a better option would be, that can be a great teaching opportunity.

When kids are too upset or overwhelmed, it's better to start with a time-in. After the time-in, then you can teach a better choice and give the child a second chance to try the situation again.

5 Things Preschoolers Need To Thrive

Follow these five tips and you'll have a happy preschooler (most of the time.)

1. Make Sure They're Getting Enough Sleep

Preschoolers will sometimes resist nap time. But if they don't get enough sleep, they will get cranky and won't be able to act rationally.

See our handy guide: How to get kids to bed when babysitting for helpful bedtime tips that can also work at nap time.

2. Give Control Over What They Eat

You can decide what foods you'll prepare for a preschooler but ultimately the amount of food they eat needs to be their choice.

Preschoolers need smaller and frequent meals throughout the day. But avoid letting them just snack constantly all day.

When it comes time to eat, give preschoolers a bunch of healthy foods to choose from. Then let them decide which ones they want to eat, and how much. Preschoolers will naturally choose to eat healthy foods as long as there isn't candy or other options available.

By offering a variety of healthy foods you can feel like you're doing the right thing no matter what they pick. And even picky eaters should be able to choose from multiple options.

One of my favourite tricks is to make animals from fruit and salad by arranging items on the plate. This always makes eating healthy food much more fun for kids, they often don't even realise they're being 'tricked'!

Never make a child sit until they've completely emptied their plate. Enforcing that kind of idea can lead to obesity later in life. Instead, ask them how they feel when they're done and make sure they feel full. Don't worry if you have to throw a bit of food away. Wasting a little food is worth it to maintain the child's future body image and physical health.

3. Give Them Structure

Kids thrive on regular routines, and preschoolers are no exception. It helps to make their lives feel more safe and predictable.

Try to follow their regular home routine as closely as possible to avoid throwing preschoolers any big curveballs. Keeping their meal times and bedtime routines close to normal is particularly important.

You can have an orderly structure to the day while still keeping a fun and calm atmosphere.

4. Let Them Be Heard

Preschoolers ask a ton of questions. Many of them often start with "why" something is a certain way.

Kids at this age are craving information, and they also just want to feel acknowledged and heard.

If you're getting hit with a barrage of "why" questions, it might be that the child wants to feel heard and tell you what they think. So try to turn the question around and ask them what they think about the question they're asking. You can see what they think about the situation, and then help to fill in any missing information.

Another issue with preschoolers is whining. Kids whining is usually a sign that they're not having their needs met or they're having difficulty processing a particular emotion.

Don't give in and reward whining, because it will reinforce them to whine more to get what they want in the future.

Instead, look at the root cause of the whining and try to solve that. Are all of the child's basic needs being met like having enough food, exercise, rest, or emotional connection with you?

You can often pre-emptively deal with whining by ensuring that the preschooler is getting enough positive attention before they get to that stage.

5. Avoid Too Much Screen Time

A preschooler's brain is still developing. Too much time playing with a tablet or watching television literally changes this brain development, and can shorten a child's attention span for the rest of their life [1].

So while it seems like an easy solution to just put kids in front of a screen in the short term, it can really have some detrimental effects in the long term.

Try to save screen time for when parents are home and need to keep kids distracted for a little bit. As a babysitter you're getting paid to keep kids stimulated, so don't start to rely on having electronics do that part of your job for you.

For my kids, I only allow screen time when someone is cooking. This works our great for multiple reasons:

  • It keeps kids out of the kitchen when the stove is hot and dangerous.
  • It gives you a chance to cook without too much distraction from the kids.
  • When dinner is ready it's easy to get kids to turn off the TV or screen because there's yummy food to eat!

Kids can be mentally stimulated by all sorts of things. Even just going for a walk around the block and seeing all sorts of different things like big trucks and people on bicycles. Or with crafts or activities that will help develop motor skills.

Instead of resorting to screens, try some of our recommended kids activities for babysitters, we have over 200 to choose from for all ages including preschoolers!

Avoid These 6 Mistakes When Babysitting Preschoolers

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when babysitting a preschooler.

1. Don't Stray From Routines OR Follow Them Too Rigidly

Both following routines too closely or getting too far off track can be problems when you're watching a preschooler.

You don't want to overschedule and have something arranged for every single minute of the day. Kids need some downtime to just relax and unwind a bit too.

Packing too much into your routines can cause problems with getting kids to bed. You may have done tons of activities with them throughout the evening to get them tired out and ready for bed. But kids usually need some time to calm down and unwind before they'll be able to get into bed and fall asleep right away.

If you think you might be overscheduling, try to specifically fit in breaks for downtime between different activities. Leave a gap to relax before naps or bedtime so that kids don't have to go straight from running around to lying down. Usually, I just call this "free play" time where the child can play with toys or chill out.

The opposite of following your schedule too rigidly is to stray from it too much. If you're not consistent with a preschooler's daily routine, they tend to get confused which can lead to more temper tantrums and acting out.

If they learn sometimes they can watch television before bed and other times they can't, they won't understand the difference. They'll wonder why last time you babysat they got to do it, but this time they had to go to bed right away.

Consistency is good across the board when it comes to mealtime, discipline, or sleep habits. It doesn't have to be 100%, but it should be pretty close. Aim to be consistent most of the time and only make a few minor exceptions here or there.

2. Don't Underestimate How Important Play Is

Playing might seem like just goofing around, but it's actually a very important part of how kids learn [2].

Play is how preschoolers learn most of their physical skills, cognitive concepts, social skills, and language skills. Dramatic play, also known as make-believe or pretending, is an important aspect of play for preschoolers.

Playing with puppets, dressing up, doing crafts, or completing simple board games or puzzles are all great activities that are both fun and a learning experience.

Be sure to mix in a variety of play activities that stimulate the preschooler you're babysitting in different ways. Mix physical activities with ones that really require them to use their brain.

Even doing housework or chores can be play for a child if they voluntarily choose to do it, and it's not a task that's assigned to them.

3. Don't Focus On Negative Behavior

It's easy to fall into the trap of only reacting to negative reactions like temper tantrums while ignoring all of the good things that preschoolers do.

Kids just want attention and don't care if it's positive or negative. So if the only time you acknowledge them is when they do something bad, that's what they're going to continue to do.

Lots of babysitters focus on telling kids what not to do. But not enough focus on rewarding good behavior when they do something positive.

Positive rewards can be praise or a big hug whenever they did something positive or mature. You should reward all kinds of positive behaviors from preschoolers like putting their toys away, washing their hands, being friendly to other kids, or even just sitting and listening quietly.

Positive encouragement goes a long way when it comes to preschoolers.

Learn more in our in-depth guide: How babysitters can nurture children to bring out their best.

4. Don't Overreact To Lies

Lying is something that kids start to do when they're preschoolers.

On the one hand, it's kind of scary that you can't believe everything they say anymore. But it's actually a big exciting mental advancement.

If you catch a preschooler you're babysitting in a lie, don't freak out. Know that it's a normal part of their development. It's normal for kids at that age to tell a lie or two.

You don't need to get too hung up on the lie and try to get a confession out of them either. Even if you know for sure they're the ones who threw the toys all over the room, there's no point getting stuck on it.

5. Be Proactive To Avoid Issues Before They Happen

Kids don't usually just blow up for no reason. There are usually warning signs when a temper tantrum is about to come.

Once a preschooler is in the middle of a temper tantrum, all hopes of reasoning with them go out the window. But if you can catch the problem ahead of time, you can anticipate when they'll be upset or distract them from things that might upset them.

Some of the big culprits are boredom, hunger, or being tired. If you notice a preschooler that you're babysitting start to exhibit any signs of these, try to deal with them right away.

Don't put yourself into situations where you're setting yourself up for a tantrum either. Before you take kids out to the playground or the grocery store, be sure they've had a nap. And pack some healthy snacks to bring with you in case they get hungry.

6. Don't Get Distracted

Preschoolers are smart. They know when you're really paying attention or not.

They might be able to play by themselves for a while, but ultimately they still often crave attention.

Don't be the kind of babysitter who gets distracted by their phone and sits on the couch while the preschooler plays by themselves. It will be much more engaging if you get down on the floor and play with them!

Even if you're preparing a meal or some other activity that needs your attention, find a way to help keep the preschooler engaged while you're doing it.

If something is going to need your undivided attention for a while and you'll only be able to keep an eye on the preschooler like if you need to change their sibling's diaper or feed them, try to give the preschooler a solid period of concentrated attention or play beforehand. That way you'll be able to get other tasks done without the preschooler whining.


Preschoolers come with their own unique set of babysitting challenges.

They're often full of questions and crave attention. They're also at a stage where you need to help to build their independence and let them do things on their own.

At this age, you might even start to catch them lying to you!

Being proactive with preschoolers will make your job a lot easier. Try to be aware of when they might be tired, hungry, or bored, as these often trigger unwanted behavior. Once a preschooler starts a temper tantrum, all hope of reasoning with them is lost and you usually have to wait for them to calm down.

But despite some of the difficulties, preschoolers can be the most fun to spend time with. Babysitters often find it rewarding to laugh, explore and learn together with kids this age.


Written by:

Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor

Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, Web Developer, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.

Published: 2 May 2019

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