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Grandmas adore babysitting. So much so, that it doesn’t matter when you’re called upon, or for how long. A whole week, maybe two. No problem. Right?

Not so fast. While you relish the extra playtime with the grandbabies and like pitching in, 24/7 nanny duty might, well, hinder your active social life. Without setting boundaries with your adult children early in the game, you run the risk of well-meaning intentions turning into a dreadful hem-and-haw every time you’re asked — again — if you’d mind watching the kids.

If you’re lucky, it all works out. Case in point: Annie Daniel, grandmother of eight, says she rarely says no to sitting requests. “I’ve been available and willing. And, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” she says.

Without a blink, she reels off her grandkids’ ages — 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 3, 1. For Annie, watching the kids has never felt obligatory. Instead, she sees it as a chance for the grandkids to get to know their grandparents as people. “The little ones are my only hope for sitting these days. I jump at keeping them every chance I get,” she says wistfully. “It’s hard to say you don’t want to be part of something that won’t last very long.” Annie hastens to add, though, that her grandkids’ parents have never overstepped their bounds or “put her on the spot.”

Babysitting gone bad

This is not always the case. A lack of granny-nanny guidelines can also lead to sticky situations. And before long, it may feel like you’re being taken advantage of.

One grandmother (let’s call her Zelda) reached that point, of feeling under-appreciated and just plain used. It got to where, as she puts it, “You dread the phone call. You answer it and say, ‘Oh, sure, I’ll sit’ only to hang up and think, ‘What did I just do?'”

It started out innocently enough.

“I was asked to keep my only grandchild for an hour while his mother shopped for groceries,” she says. “Naturally, I was eager to help.”

Two days later, the phone started ringing again. Then, more phone calls. Babysitting requests started piling up.

The calls were spontaneous, says Zelda, who admits to being caught off-guard by the onslaught. “While still in the conversation, I’d be juggling two little voices,” she says. “One voice would say: ‘I want to serve, and not be selfish with my time.’ But, an equally urgent voice silently piped up: ‘Yes, but I thought I had this whole day to paint.'”

One way to avoid getting stuck in this predicament is to outline for your children how much free time you have for babysitting. You may even lightly strike up the conversation before your grandchild is born. Also key? Consider how far in advance of sitting time you’d like to be approached. If you prefer day-of requests be off-limits — except in case of emergency — tell your children that.

“Setting limits early-on will help you steer clear of misconceptions and unrealistic expectations,” says award-winning children’s author Karyn Henley. The grandmother of two cautions: “If you say ‘yes’ every time, even when it means changing your schedule, the parents will probably ask you first, every time.”

In Zelda’s case, there were two warning signs she missed. First, she was being asked to sit more and more frequently. Second, the extent of care she was being asked to provide for her grandson was expanding.

A simple ‘can he spend the night?’ would balloon into, ‘since he’ll be there tomorrow morning, would you mind taking him to his doctor’s appointment?’

Then, Zelda began questioning the reasons she was being asked to sit, which usually sounded something like: ‘My husband has a chance to go out-of-town and really wants me to go with him.’

Sure, sounds like a nice outing; but, is it something Zelda should feel compelled to devote a big chunk of her time to making sure happens?

“Before I learned to set limits, a resentment — that I never talked about — had built up,” she admits. “I finally realized that, by being a doormat, I was causing myself the problem. So I took steps to change that.”

Things are different now. The new Grandma Zelda weighs her decisions to babysit against the reason the baby’s parents require a sitter (what are their plans?). An important job interview gets a ‘yes’ much faster than a massage at the Y.

And, Zelda now keeps a calendar by her telephone. Even if she has nothing scheduled on the requested day, she’s perfectly comfortable saying, “No, I have plans,” which may very well mean ‘I plan to not take care of your child. I’m reserving that day for me’.

Henley agrees. It’s okay to say, “No, I’m sorry but my schedule is full” without giving specifics. For times when sitting is not convenient, she suggests offering an alternate sitter. You may try this: “If you’re in a pinch, call my next door neighbor. I’ve kept her grandchild, so she owes me big time!”

This doesn’t mean you’re accepting responsibility for finding a sitter, stresses Henley. “You’re there to help. But, you’re not obligated. If I can’t sit, I know my daughter-in-law will find someone, or change plans, or they’ll have to work it out as a couple.”

A granny nanny with a plan… or three

Carolyn Schulz and her daughter, Karen, found a unique way to avoid misunderstandings. After Carolyn and her husband retired, the two moved back to the town where they had raised their family. This was also where her daughter and son-in-law were building their own business.

Carolyn asked outright, “How can I best help the business?”

Her daughter’s response: “By being a ‘gopher’ for our girls.”

Translated, this meant that Carolyn would be available, sometimes on short notice, for whatever needs arose for her granddaughters, then ages 7 and 10.

Carolyn and Karen worked out a timesaving code that’s proven to be effective.

If Karen makes a request and Carolyn responds with a Plan A that means: No plans, no problem!

Responding with a Plan B indicates that Carolyn has plans and Karen should try her other sitter options.

If Karen’s request is a Plan W, that translates into urgent — usually signaling a business predicament. In this case, she’s exhausted all other options and will have to seriously alter her plans if Carolyn cannot help.

“The arrangement works out splendidly from my end,” says Carolyn. “I’m usually available to help, but I’ve turned down requests.”

As for Zelda? “Setting and communicating reasonable boundaries is hard,” she says. “But I’ve realized that the world doesn’t fall apart when I say ‘no’.”