Katie Doyle is an American writer with T1D who became more involved with the diabetes community during a working holiday in New Zealand. She has looked after children with T1D in the US and Australia.
Leaving a child with diabetes in the care of a new babysitter can be stressful for everyone, as Katie Doyle finds out when she talks to families and caregivers about their experiences.
I have been living with type 1 diabetes since I was 11 years old, and looking after children helped fund my travels around New Zealand and other life adventures. But it was only recently that I started thinking about what it’s like for parents raising a T1D child – and the strong undercurrent of worry that accompanies those childhood years.
Whānau and other caregivers told me there is lots we can all do to help support families and caregivers, so everyone can feel confident that children with diabetes are in safe hands 24/7. But it needs to be a “village” effort!
Parents talk about a a number of worries they had when leaving someone else in charge of their T1D child: caregivers missing a low blood sugar, forgetting to take a reading, miscalculating insulin, or not knowing what to do during a diabetes emergency.
Sharleen Poinga and daughter Shontay. Photo: Kiri Marsters
Sharleen Poinga, from Auckland, says she feels uneasy about leaving her 12-year-old daughter Shontay with anyone outside her own whānau.
Sharleen, who has two sisters with type 1 diabetes, says: “I’m lucky because my family can often step in, but it’s hard for me. Talking and checking in regularly with the caregiver is how I feel comfortable.
“I also take the time to train up new babysitters so they feel comfortable taking care of Shontay’s diabetes.
“I have to make sure school holiday programme staff are aware she has type 1 and also parents if she goes to a friend’s house. But when it comes to leaving Shontay with someone new, I still struggle with it.”
Rebecca Cheriton and son Gabe
Wellington Mum Rebecca Cheriton agrees. Her 12-year-old son has had diabetes since he was one.
“All of the babysitters we’ve used have been close friends. He’s never actually stayed with anyone who wasn’t already known to him,” Rebecca explains.“But it’s still hard to fully relax on a night out because you end up keeping half an eye on what’s going on at home. I know in hindsight we’ve been “helicopter-parents” at times. For example, I’ve been involved in school help a lot more than I would have, in terms of day trips and camps.”
The family relies on technology to communicate with babysitters, staying in touch by text, checking blood glucose numbers and giving advice.
Finding a babysitter who can keep calm in the face of diabetes-related chaos was a challenge for all the families I spoke to.
“Everyone thinks they’ll be able to respond if it goes wrong but not everyone handles themselves well when it does,” says Rebecca.
One solution is hiring a babysitter who has diabetes themselves, like Bailey Cockerton, 22, from Hamilton, who has lived with type 1 for 19 years.
Bailey says she plans to “expect the unexpected” when she’s looking after a T1D child. She also thinks about how she would react if things don’t go according to plan.
“Having diabetes management skills definitely makes looking after T1D children easier. I also understand how parents feel about leaving their children in the care of someone outside the family.
“I recommend asking around. There will be a bunch of T1D people out there who are interested in babysitting little t1s,” she says.
With any babysitter, the most important thing is to “educate them as best you can,” she says.
Many parents said they felt most comfortable when leaving their children in the care of whānau, including grandparents and older siblings.
Helen Booth and grandson Cameron
Retired nurse Helen Booth, from Kāpiti Coast, often looks after her 11-year-old grandson Cameron, who has had diabetes for five years and lives in Wellington.
“It is challenging and as a grandparent you do feel a weight of responsibility. I’m forever making sure he has eaten enough food to cover the insulin given. And I look at his little calloused fingers and wish I could have this for him! But he copes very well.
“For the last two years he has had an insulin pump. This is a little challenging for all grandparents – his blood sugar has to be tested, carbohydrate intake entered on the pump and insulin requirement noted and entered.
“Cameron can manage the pump during the day, but not at night. He is checked at 12am and 3am, and more frequently if he is particularly low or high. Even as a retired nurse, I find decision making when short of sleep – when to adjust basal rate or feed him Skittles – scary in respect of making a mistake. I therefore limit his stays to one night at a time, though both he and we would love his stay to be longer, especially to give his parents a break.”
Alexandra Bridger and brother Charles
Alexandra Bridger, age 27, from Hamilton, said that looking after her younger brother Charles taught her to know when to ask for help. Charles, now 24, was diagnosed at just over one year old.
“When I was younger I was a lot less confident with injections and insulin dosages, but I knew that if he wasn’t in a state to inject himself, I could always call my parents so that they could talk me through it,” she said.
“I’m more likely to ask questions or take action if I think something might be wrong.”
Ruby McGill and her son Felix
Ruby McGill, Director of Youth at Diabetes NZ, agrees that it’s important for parents and babysitters to ask for help when they are feeling out of depth.
“I know that calling on ‘my village’ when I’m feeling a little burnt out helps my diabetes management and my family,” says Ruby, who has had T1D since she was 14 years old.
“Juggling type 1 diabetes and a family can be a challenge, and you do the best you can. It’s okay to take some time out for yourself and please don’t ever forget you are not alone in this journey”