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Kevin Van Paassen

On a weekday evening at a Vancouver hair salon, more than a dozen fashionably dressed women are drinking sparkling water and chatting above the peppy soundtrack as they wait. But they aren't here to get their hair done - they've each paid $50 to cruise for babysitters.

Across the brightly lit room is a motherlode of sitters, all female and mostly college students, with oodles of experience in wiping baby bottoms and soothing cranky tots.

The moms and students are about to get face time in an event that melds the babysitter interview with speed dating.

Standing in parallel rows, they talk for three minutes until the whistle blows. Then the mothers rotate to meet the next potential match. And the next.

"It's pretty fast and it's pretty furious, because I try to keep it within an hour," says Amy van Weelderen, who runs the event through her business, Lullaby League.

Launched last year, Lullaby League is the first Canadian version of a phenomenon that has taken off in the United States in the past five years.

Incarnations south of the border range from San Diego-based Sitter Socials to MommyMixer, offered in 32 U.S. cities.

A MommyMixer spokesperson says the service will start up in Canadian cities some time this year. Ms. van Weelderen says she is hoping to expand Lullaby League to other Canadian cities this year as well.

In Vancouver, all five Lullaby League events to date have sold out.

Even in the economic downturn, Ms. van Weelderen says, reliable child care is in short supply.

The mothers taking breaks between frantic interviews agree.

"I had one sitter who left my daughter alone in the car in a parking lot," says Kim Kapoor, vice-president of marketing for a winery.

Ms. Kapoor says she's having trouble finding good after-school care for her two daughters, aged 4 and 6 - even though she's willing to pay upward of $20 an hour.

A three-minute interview is hardly enough to assess a babysitter's qualifications, Ms. Kapoor says, "but it's better than an e-mail exchange."

Some moms at the mixer describe the search for sitters as a competitive sport. "You keep your cards close when you find a good one," says Willa Kriebel, a businesswoman.

In transient cities such as Vancouver, parents often lack the family and social connections that used to yield babysitting leads, Ms. van Weelderen says. "It's not like the old days when your neighbour would babysit."

Allison Baker, who moved here from Edmonton last summer, says she clicked with a few babysitters "right off the bat" at her first Lullaby League mixer in October.

She hired a regular babysitter, but she's back tonight because the student's schedule changed.

After paying another $50, Ms. Baker is hoping to find someone to mind her 18-month-old child while she cares for her two-week-old daughter Aura, who is strapped to her chest in a Snugli.

Ms. van Weelderen started Lullaby League after she was stuck without a babysitter on her wedding anniversary. She and her husband had to bring their five-year-old son along on their dinner date. She remembers thinking, "This is ridiculous."

Ms. van Weelderen rounds up babysitters by posting ads at colleges, universities and on electronic job boards. She checks résumés for babysitting experience and general coherence. Although she does not do background checks or call references, Ms. van Weelderen says, she does talk to each babysitter by phone and weeds out the weakest résumés.

The rest she compiles in a booklet called the Lullaby List, which she distributes to parents at the start of each event. The mothers sign a waiver saying they won't share the list.

At tonight's mixer, the babysitters seem uniformly articulate, well educated and well aware of their worth.

Among them is Alisha Kuntz, a student at Langara College who says she plans to work in child protection after completing a diploma in social work. With more than three years of experience as a nanny under her belt, Ms. Kuntz says she'll charge $15 an hour for babysitting more than one child, even if they are asleep. "It's what I'm used to getting," she says.

Ms. van Weelderen says she signs up more babysitters than mothers for each event because a few students always bail at the last minute. Tonight she is short by two babysitters and she apologizes to the mothers, who have to take turns for interviews. But the moms don't seem to mind. They're used to no-shows.

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