When 11-year-old Zak Shelton baby-sits his one-year-old sister, Crystal, he is prepared for a variety of emergencies. He is skilled in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the Heimlich maneuver, earthquake preparedness and diapering.
Zak, who lives with his parents and three younger sisters in Cardiff, is often called upon to baby-sit. He commands a hefty $3 an hour, but says that, just a short time ago, he wasn't baby-sitting at all.
That was before he completed the Super Sitters baby-sitting class at the Well Being, a center at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas.
"I took the class because I have a baby sister and I wanted to baby-sit her," Zak said. "It's fun playing with her, and I like when she falls asleep in my lap," he said.
Zak said he and a friend originally took the Super Sitter class after watching a Rescue 911 television show where a young boy used CPR to save his newborn sibling's life.
"I learned how to do CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and what to do in case prowlers are around the house," Zak said. "I learned not to let my sister play with things that are too small, so she won't swallow them," he said.
Zak is like hundreds of North County preteens and teens who have enrolled in classes sponsored by hospitals and health education centers that teach baby-care basics. These are not the basics of yesteryear when baby-sitting meant plunking the kid in front of the television and raiding the refrigerator.
These nouveau baby-sitters are learning some pretty high-tech stuff, including how to relieve an obstructed airway of a choking toddler, what to do in case of fire or prowlers, which toys are appropriate and safe, and a sprinkling of child psychology. Some classes even touch on what to do if the baby-sitter suspects child abuse.
"We talk about not only taking care of yourself but others as well," said Rose Serna, the licensed vocational nurse who teaches the baby-care basics class at the Health Concern in Escondido. "We talk about what type of discipline to use and what kind of discipline not to use."
Serna said much of her class is devoted to talking about home safety. "I'll tell my students, 'Just because you come into a home, don't assume it's safe. Some of these parents are not educated, and it's up to you to make sure it's safe, at least while you're there.' "
Students also learn how to conduct themselves in a professional manner and present a positive image. Dressing appropriately for an assignment and learning to communicate with a parent are integral parts of the baby-sitting business, she says.
"We talk about not taking this any less seriously than a job, and how they should go about meeting and interviewing parents before they take a sitting assignment," said Serna. "This is to ensure that the job is legitimate, and so the day the baby-sitter goes to a job she is prepared to step in."
Quite often, in the flurry of trying to get out the door, parents will forget to tell sitters where they are going and how they can be reached in case of an emergency, Serna said. By interviewing parents beforehand, sitters can jot this information down on their fact sheets and fully understand what is expected of them.
Students of the Super Sitters class at the Well Being receive a board with questions they need to ask parents before they leave for the evening, said Pam Nagata, a spokeswoman for the health education center. The address and telephone number of the house where a sitter is working is important information that is often taken for granted and therefore not mentioned, Nagata said.
Although most families have established day-care providers during the week, back-up sitters are often needed for the last-minute errand or Saturday nights out. Nagata says all the parents in her Encinitas neighborhood have a list of teen-age sitters who are in constant rotation and they are always looking for more sitters.
With their parents' permission, students who have completed a baby-sitting class at the Well Being or the Health Concern can be added to lists. People looking for baby-sitters can call the health education centers and get names and phone numbers of interested sitters, but the centers cannot specifically recommend anyone.
"The big reason most of the moms are calling for baby-sitters from this program is because of the CPR part," said Nagata. "We spend a whole two hours just on CPR with mannequins supplied by the American Heart Assn."
Zak Shelton said he wouldn't mind branching out and baby-sitting other children. The Super Sitters class he took has prepared him well, he said.
"I learned a lot of things in the class and I remember most of it," Zak said. "Now I take care of all my sisters, it's not a problem."