A Coach at the Crib And a Consultant at the Potty

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008

Maria Zimmitti didn't set out to become, in her words, the potty lady.

The Georgetown psychologist fell into the role of toilet-training coach. She mastered potty training while working with children in an early-intervention program in the District in the late 1990s. About five years ago, she shared her techniques with a few groups of mothers. Word of Zimmitti's skills soon lit up local Internet discussion groups.

Now eager parents line up to pay her $250 for a consultation, with topics like quelling a toilet rebellion and pointers on how to avoid one.

"Sometimes a parent will say, 'How about I pay you $5,000 and you potty train for me?' " Zimmitti said. "They're halfway joking."

Zimmitti is part of a niche service sector that has appeal among busy, anxious and often well-heeled parents in the region who want help with some of the most important and intimate child-rearing duties. Many simply want to carve out more time to spend with their children. For them, paying a personal shopper $30 to spend an afternoon tracking down a coveted tutu for a 2-year-old is money well spent. For other parents, the baby-services sector is a lifeline that can rescue them from sleepless nights or protect their children from getting hurt at home.

The prices for baby-specific services run the gamut: $85 for an hour with a lactation consultant, several hundred more for childproofing gear and someone to install it, $4,000 for five nights with a sleep trainer -- all before a baby is out of diapers. In all, the government estimates, middle-income households spend an average of $10,600 for a child's first year.

Diana Ostergard of Ashburn spent several thousand dollars on a coach to help teach her 8-month-old son who had severe acid reflux to sleep more than two hours at a time. "It was worth every dollar," she said. "I would pay double."

The appetite for baby-related services, which can be found in many big cities, sets today's parents apart from previous generations, according to historians and sociologists. Hiring someone to help with toilet training or to teach parents how to perform infant massage "is something new," said Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "The Commercialization of Intimate Life."

Hochschild and others who study modern family life tick off a host of reasons why this shift has come about: luxury services trickling down to those who aren't mega-wealthy, the rise of households with two working parents, longer work hours for white-collar workers and more people living far from extended family networks.

"People are more structurally isolated. We don't have grandparents or aunts or sisters to turn to," said the Columbia University historian Steven Mintz, author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood." "We are also busier. Our work hours have gotten longer. If you don't have a lot of time, that induces guilt. We all want to give our kids the same upbringing we had or better but don't feel like we have the time."

Many of the parents who use these baby-related services already pay someone to do household chores like house cleaning and laundry. The arrival of children simply expands the types of tasks for which they are willing to hire help.

Take childproofing. When such companies began popping up in the D.C. area in the early 1990s, they were considered something of a luxury. But with children 1 to 4 having the second-highest rate of unintentional injury-related death -- after infants -- and high-profile recalls stoking fears about the safety of items like cribs and rubber ducks, professional childproofing is seen by some as a necessity.

An initial consultation can cost $50 to $100. That doesn't include installation and products, which quickly add up: $30 to $100 for a baby gate, $3 for a cabinet lock, $12 for an anti-tip kit to stabilize dressers and wardrobes. In 2006, Americans spent $235 million on child-safety gear, according to the International Association for Child Safety, an industry trade group.

Some local childproofers are booked as much as eight months out. Nida Saavedra, owner of Children's Safety Care in Gaithersburg, said many clients hire her each time they move or have a child.

The pressures of work and time -- and the need for their own sleep, to function at work -- weighed heavily on Alex Perdikis, an auto sales executive, and his wife, Dresden Koons, an administrator and teacher at a local private school. Soon after the Potomac couple brought their second child home from the hospital nine months ago, they called Suzy Giordano, a sleep consultant in Carrollton, Va. Giordano's assignment: get their infant daughter on a regular feeding and sleeping schedule.

Giordano and her sleep trainers were a regular presence in the Perdikis-Koons home for eight weeks. The bill was at least several thousand dollars.

"It's a big investment, but it was well worth it," Perdikis said. "When you've got a 2-year-old and newborn and we're both full-time working parents, getting your sleep is important."

Staying up with your baby "used to be a rite of passage," said Barbara Kline, president of White House Nannies in Bethesda. "Now you outsource it." Her company places night nurses at a cost of about $400 for 24 hours.

Other service providers in demand are doulas, who assist women during labor or in the immediate weeks afterward, and lactation consultants. Nationwide, the membership of DONA International, an association for birth and postpartum doulas, has more than doubled, to 5,200, in the past decade, according to the group. Similar figures are harder to come by for specialized child-care workers such as night nurses.

Doulas and childproofers can be found in the Yellow Pages or through a Google search. But finding some specialized baby services requires being in the know. Holly Morse Caldwell, who spent several years researching "City Baby DC," a guide to parenting resources in the Washington area, learned of Zimmitti from other mothers. The words "toilet" and "potty" don't appear under the list of services on Zimmitti's practice's home page. She said she gets enough word-of-mouth referrals that she doesn't need to spend much time promoting her services.

Teia Collier, a personal shopper who works exclusively with parents of young children, also relies on word of mouth. For parents who don't have the time or inclination to sift through product reviews or bone up on the latest round of recalls, she charges flat or hourly fees, depending on the amount of time involved, to run down things like double diaper bags, breast pumps, strollers and tooth-fairy pillows.

"Everything requires research. You try lots of stuff and discover it doesn't work. So you've wasted your money. I do the research, and I find it," she said.

Collier spent a recent Friday morning up to her neck in tulle at a children's boutique in Alexandria on behalf of a client who, between traveling for work and planning her 2-year-old daughter's birthday party, hadn't had time to pick up one last gift for her little girl. So she paid Collier a $30 fee and gave her a budget of $50 to find something special. Collier emerged from the store with a pink tutu and a wand with a flower on one end.

Afterward, her client sent her an e-mail, saying the tutu and wand were a big hit.

"You can't go wrong with a tutu and a wand," Collier said. "What girl doesn't like a stick to wave?"

Besides convenience, calling in a pro comes with another benefit for harried parents: reassurance.

Consultants who specialize in lactation or sleep fill a void left by parenting books and pediatricians. Books can't offer personalized advice, and pediatricians don't have time to sit with parents in the wee hours of the night and help them decide whether to let their baby cry.

And the consultants help parents cut through the overwhelming quantity and often contradictory bits of advice.

"When I was born there was one book, [by] Dr. Spock. That is what everybody went to. Now, there's the Internet and multiple books," said Annika Brindley, a sleep consultant. "When you start second-guessing and getting confused by what you're feeling and what everybody else is saying, you end up lacking in confidence."

Zimmitti, the toilet trainer, said most of what she does is "keeping parents hopeful."

Many of the families who seek her out aren't in an immediate crisis but go to her preemptively to find out what to do -- and what not to do. The toughest cases can take as long as eight weeks. But a few days is usually all it takes. Parents learn all they need to know in one session. A follow-up visit costs $175. Hand-holding via e-mail or phone is free.

"Parents want to do it right. I constantly tell them they can do it well enough," Zimmitti said. "If you mess it up, we can fix it."

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