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December 10, 2009

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For hire: care-free parent services

THE baby products market is booming, with choices sometimes too bewildering for busy couples trying to cope with first-time parenting. Enter the baby-planning service which will set up the nursery, hire a nanny and buy the stroller. Caryn Rousseau reports.

With twins on the way, Stacey Blackmar and her husband were looking to be prepared first-time parents when they started researching baby products. Instead, they found themselves bewildered by all the choices and information available.

"It was overwhelming. I was looking at strollers," says Blackmar, 31, a high school math teacher who lives in the Chicago suburb of Oswego. "Everybody has different opinions. Then you ask your friends and they have different opinions."

Their solution was to hire Joelle Gowryluk-Knapp, who runs Nest Help, a baby planning service in Chicago. The budding industry helps where a birthing coach or midwife or nanny cannot with services that range from nursery planning and home baby-proofing to baby-shower planning and shopping for maternity clothes.

Between 60 and 70 baby planners have started offering services in the United States in the past few years, says Melissa Moog, president of the National Baby Planner Association.

"We're like wedding planners, but we're helping you prepare for your baby's arrival and all the information and research you have to deal with," says Moog, who runs Itsabelly Baby Planners in Portland, Oregon.

The goal is "to basically reduce the overwhelming feelings of stress and save time so you can spend quality time on what matters to you," Moog says. "If what's important to you is going to birthing classes instead of doing research on car seats, I can do that for you."

Baby planners will offer researched recommendations on baby products, like strollers and cribs, and make referrals and do interviews with possible nannies and midwives.

Many clients are busy professional women or pregnant women who live far away from their families, Moog says. Baby planners charge a la carte rates from around US$50 to US$150 an hour or by packages, which can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, she says.

The Blackmars have hired Gowryluk-Knapp to plan their baby registries, help set up their nursery and choose products that will make their home environmentally friendly before their babies arrive next summer.

Gowryluk-Knapp researches products and notes features that will fit her clients' lifestyles. For example, she recommends the Blackmars buy a stroller with a hand brake because they have a large dog.

"I actually consider myself a mommy coach," says Gowryluk-Knapp, a former nanny. "I never take the decisions away. I coach the mom to make good choices."

New mother Amy Blair, 43, a senior vice president of human resources at Liberty Global Inc in Denver, Colorado, said she and her husband hired April Beach of Sweet Pea Baby Planners to save time before their daughter was born in May.

"Both my husband and I have intense professional jobs," Blair says. "A lot of the things April does you can also do yourself, but it does take a lot of time and we just did not have it. This is a huge industry, and you can get sucked into all kinds of things and April gave us advice only on those specific things we needed."

Beach says she can be on-call in the weeks near a client's due date to perform simple chores, like making sure their bags are packed or installing car seats. She wants to enhance maternity for a mother, she says.

"A mother today looks a lot different than a mother 15 years ago," Beach says. "She is powerful. She is strong. She is knowledgeable. Women today know it's OK to ask for help. That's a victory for all of us."

But hiring baby planners may not only be a question of asking for help. Kerrie Smedley, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, says it may be an example of parents struggling to meet society's high expectations.

"We have an expert society or an expert culture where we really don't trust we can do anything without researching it and getting help," Smedley says. "You can't really trust any of your own instincts; you need an expert."

There also can be opposite pressure from the longtime idea that parents should want to do everything for their children, said Parenting magazine senior editor Christina Vercelletto.

"A lot of it has to do with the expectation that anything to do with a baby is something that a mother should want to do," she says.

Vercelletto says baby planners can alleviate stress and be useful to parents who can afford their services, but there are plenty of other good resources available, such as advice from friends and family, for parents who cannot pay for extra help.

"Especially in this economy, this is a luxury service," Vercelletto says. "If this is something you feel is going to put a strain on your budget, absolutely there's no reason to feel it's a must do."

Moog says the economic downturn has some baby planners losing would-be clients, and stresses that baby planners will work with clients from any budget.

"It's not your super rich," Moog says. "It's not your celebrities."

For the Blackmars, having expert advice from a baby planner means peace of mind.

"It's a smooth transition, less stressed and relaxing," Stacey Blackmar says. "I want to make sure all my T's are crossed and my I's are dotted."


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