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The law does not set a minimum age at which children can be left alone. However, it is an offence to leave a child alone when doing so puts him or her at risk.

As babysitters are not 'registered' and there are no regulations to govern this type of childcare, However, local authorities do hold lists of registered childminders and some childminders may be willing to do some evening or weekend babysitting.

Parents may also wish to find a sitter by asking a friend or a relative with children for a recommendation or by looking in the Yellow Pages or searching the web for babysitting agencies. Should you use a babysitting agency, it is important that you are clear as to how they vet their sitters, for example, do they interview and take up references and do they complete a DBS check.

Both the NSPCC and RoSPA recommend that babysitters should be over 16 years of age and that parents ask for at least two references and contact the referees themselves. RoSPA also suggest that parents complete 'risk assessments' and think through all possible eventualities before leaving their children with a babysitter. Further tips on good practices when using a babysitter are available from both the NSPCC and RoSPA.

How to decide if you can safely leave a child alone 

Further advice on good practices when leaving children alone can be obtained by looking at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) (search for babysitting) or by ringing the NSPCC helpline on 0800 800 5000.

There are many important things to consider before you decide to leave a child alone. These include:

  • the age of the child
  • the child's level of maturity and understanding
  • the place where the child will be left
  • how long and how often the child will be left alone
  • whether or not there are any other children with the child.

For example, most parents would think it is okay to leave a 16-year-old alone for the evening. But to leave them for a week would be unacceptable.

Many young children play outdoors with other children without supervision, most people would agree that this is an important part of growing up. To leave children outdoors for a considerable length of time though, or to allow them to wander off without knowing where they are going, would be unacceptable.

You are the best judge of your child's level of maturity and responsibility.

It is worth remembering that the NSPCC recommends that most children under 13 should not be left alone for longer than a short period of time and that no child under the age of 16 years should be left overnight.