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Supermom, RIP: return of the night nurse Add to ...

When Julie Soloway learned she was pregnant with her second child, she squealed with joy.

Then, as she began to remember the particularities of life with a newborn - sleepless nights for weeks at a time, dozens of daily diaper changes, constant feeding - she did what more and more women are doing: She hired a baby nurse to do four weeks of night duty at her Toronto home.

Once considered a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, agencies that place baby nurses, also called night nurses, say that demand for the service has surged even among families that are not affluent. The profession is making a comeback, with more mothers booking an extra pair of hands to help with their newborn charges.

"I had to be a functioning person," Ms. Soloway says. "I needed to drive and prepare meals - and think."

It's not that Ms. Soloway feared she could not handle a newborn and care for her four-year-old daughter.

But, like a small but growing number of women of her generation, the thirtysomething lawyer is not interested in becoming supermom, juggling babies and work and running a household on her own.

Instead, she's rejected the pressure on new mothers to be on call for their babies 24/7 during the postpartum period.

"You also need to take care of yourself," she says.

A few years ago, Ramie Veerappan's Toronto caregiver agency placed about one baby nurse a month.

Now, Maternal Infant & Child Ltd. fields more than a dozen requests a week. Demand is being fuelled in part by a swelling number of multiple births - attributed to more older mothers and infertility treatments - as well as an increased rate of cesarean section and a growing awareness of postpartum depression.

Also, as women wait longer to have children, their own mothers don't always have the stamina or interest to assist with round-the-clock feedings.

Ms. Veerappan says she now wears a pager 24 hours a day so that parents can reach her in the middle of the night with requests for help.

"I had no idea how exhausting it was going to be," says Amanda Dawson, a 32-year-old video editor in Montreal, who hired a baby nurse within a week of returning home from hospital with her newborn son in December.

The baby wanted to feed every two hours, she wasn't getting any sleep and her husband had to go back to work, Ms. Dawson says. "I don't think there should be any shame in admitting that."

In previous generations, bigger families and proximity to extended family helped women get ready for motherhood, says Andrea O'Reilly, founder of the Association for Research on Mothering at Toronto's York University.

Now, "women are ill-prepared for motherhood," Ms. O'Reilly says. "They have no practical, hands-on experience."

New mothers are also discharged from hospital so fast that they may not have a chance to master the basics of newborn care, such as feeding and burping, she adds.

As a result, they are hiring baby nurses who, despite their name, are usually not registered nurses and have little formal training, although most take basic infant-care courses at a community college and learn CPR and first aid.

Most come from cultures where generations of female family members pitch in when a newborn arrives.

Many women who were raised on ideals of gender equality are surprised at how much of the burden of caring for a newborn falls on them.

It was Kirsten Stern's husband who urged her to book a nurse before the birth of their first son, she says. Mr. Stern, who works in real estate, could not afford to take time away from the office or come into work exhausted for weeks at a time.

"He told me, 'I'm off-duty between midnight and 6 a.m.,' " said Ms. Stern, 30, of Montreal.

Having the nurse enabled Ms. Stern to get just enough rest to keep up with her 22-month-old during the day.

Her nurse woke up with the baby during the night to give a bottle of pumped breast milk, allowing Ms. Stern to skip a feeding and get a precious four or five hours of uninterrupted sleep.

"It's worth the money," she says. "You are a better mother if you are not exhausted."

Costs for overnight service range from $15 to $45 an hour, with registered nurses and those caring for multiples at the top end of the scale, agencies say. Some baby nurses will work 24-hour shifts for package rates.

"I would have paid any money to get some rest," Ms. Dawson says.

Marcia Williams, who owns an agency called Marcy Cares, says she has had many middle-class family clients who saved up to pay the fee.

And at baby showers, gift certificates for the services of a night nurse are increasingly replacing fancy baby clothes as a popular present for mothers-to-be.

"Mothers don't want another fluffy blanket," Ms. Veerappan says. "They want some sleep."

Agencies are expanding to meet the demand. Ms. Williams employs 20 full- and part-time baby nurses, while Ms. Veerappan's agency is actively looking to hire.

Mothers often swap names of nurses with friends and hire on word-of-mouth recommendations. A nurse who becomes popular within a particular neighbourhood or community can require booking months in advance, mothers say.

Ms. Stern called her nurse moments after she told her husband she was pregnant with their second child.

"She gets booked up really fast and I wasn't going to do this without her," she says.

Ms. Dawson says the nurse restored calm to her home. First, she sent Ms. Dawson's husband to purchase bottles. She showed Ms. Dawson how to use her breast pump so the baby would be able to get breast milk from the new bottles.

Then, Ms. Dawson says, the nurse fed the baby, cleaned the nursery and did the laundry. Meanwhile, Ms. Dawson did what every new mother dreams of doing: She took a nap.

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