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Parenting Inc. Outsourcing the Job

A Coach at the Crib And a Consultant at the Potty

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008; Page A01

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

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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.

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