Functional interpretations of helping behaviour suggest that it has evolved because helpers increase their direct or indirect fitness by helping. However, recent critiques have suggested that helping may be an unselected extension of normal parental behaviour, pointing to evidence that all mature individuals commonly respond to begging young (whether they are parents, relatives or non-relatives) as well as to the lack of evidence that cooperative activities have appreciable costs to helpers. Here we provide an example of one form of cooperative behaviour that is seldom performed by parents and has substantial energetic costs to helpers. In the cooperative mongoose, Suricata suricatta, non-breeding adults commonly babysit young pups at the natal burrow for a day at a time, foregoing feeding for 24 hours. Parents rarely contribute to babysitting, and babysitting has substantial energetic costs to helpers. Members of small groups compensate for the reduced number of participants by babysitting more frequently, and neither the proportion of time that babysitters are present nor the survival of litters vary with group size.