A friend once described a baby nurse to me as part husband, part best friend, and part surrogate parent. In the most basic sense, baby nurses are women (almost always immigrant women) hired by new parents to wake up with their newborns at all hours of the night. But as depicted in the movie Tully — in which Charlize Theron plays an exhausted mother of three — a baby nurse often does much more than feed a baby at 3 a.m.
There are many theories as to why baby nurses are frequently hired in certain pockets of Manhattan and Brooklyn: the affluence (a baby nurse costs upward of $300 a day); the lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. that means many parents have to return to work quickly and want to fast-track sleeping training; and familial support networks who live too far away to help out during this care-intensive period.
But what’s it like to be a baby nurse and live with families, sometimes for three, four, or five months, and witness, first-hand, these vulnerable postpartum months? Baby nurses can be hired for as little as a night, or even a week, but most jobs last a minimum of two weeks and typically go between eight and 12 weeks — the time frame when babies, on average, reach the weight when they can sleep through the night. Until then, the hours are brutal for the baby nurse: 18-hour days for five days straight, followed by two days off. And like the child-care industry as a whole, the baby nurse sector is unregulated and predominantly referral-driven.
Here, a veteran New York City baby nurse (she asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about previous jobs) who books out a year in advance, shares what the experience is like from her point-of-view, along with her thoughts on spoiling babies, the reason she isn’t a breastfeeding evangelist, and the story of the Upper East Side couple who drove her out after 48 hours.
In these kinds of situations when you are coming to live with a couple who has just had a baby, they are so vulnerable. Often the mother’s body is exposed all the time because she’s breastfeeding. There’s an intimacy that arises and you become like a confidant. In this short period of time you go from hardly knowing them to forming this strong bond.
Taking any job is a gamble because you don’t really know what kind of people you are dealing with until you get into their home. That is when their personality really starts to show. But it takes a lot for me to leave a job. Some people have expected me to be the nanny for the other child, their doula, their gofer, housekeeper, and chef all in one. Of course I don’t mind helping out in cases like when the mother had a C-section and she can’t prepare a meal for herself. But there are times when people take advantage of me. Now I work for nicer people than I did when I first started out.
The worst job I had was on the Upper East Side. They asked me to wash the floor, cook them meals, and serve them. I stayed for two days and then I just packed my bags and left. The best job I ever had was one where I stayed for a year because the bond after that amount of time was so strong.
Where I come from in the Caribbean they do think it is a bit strange that these white people in New York City can’t take care of their own babies. But we grow up with so many siblings, and that makes a big difference. There are other cultural differences I’ve noticed. I think it’s crazy when these women starve themselves after giving birth when they need to be eating to produce breast milk. I tell them that, and I try to encourage them to eat the right foods.
When I started out almost 20 years ago, I was doing this job for so little money — $135 for 24 hours a day. Right now there is an agency in New York City that charges $500 a day for baby nurses. And double that — $1,000 a day — if you have twins. Today I think the going rate is in the range of $350 to $500 a day.
Going into the homes of so many of these affluent people makes me think that money is the best commodity to have because it answers most things, except happiness. But I’ve worked for all kinds of people. I’ve worked for families with a whole floor apartment and I’ve also slept on a couch in a living room and the only privacy I had was to bathe and change in the bathroom. That was years ago.
If the jobs keep flowing, I can make a living. But you have to work really, really hard in this field to make a living. You hardly ever get more than two hours of sleep a night. I’m lucky, though, and it only takes me a few days after a job to recover and feel normal. I believe I have a real gift with babies and this is what I’m cut out to do right now. But it’s always hard to be away from my own family. We have an understanding and they know I’ll be gone for a certain amount of time, so we try and cherish the time we do have together.
The most tragic experience I’ve had on any job was with a mother who refused to supplement with formula. She wasn’t producing enough breast milk, but was set on exclusively breastfeeding. I had to sneak the infant baby formula. I had to leave because I couldn’t watch this child starve. I heard that the baby got sick after I left.
I believe all babies can be trained to sleep through the night. Sleep training is sleeping any 12-hour stretch through the night. I’ve never had a baby I couldn’t sleep train who was at the appropriate weight. If you can afford to have a professional sleep train your baby, it’s good because most parents don’t have the stamina to do it on their own. It’s hard.
When it comes to breastfeeding, I see a lot of competition and comparison. But after the first few months of breastfeeding there are no more antibodies, it’s just normal food. Continuing to breastfeed your child until they are 2 years old is crazy. Your breasts will become saggy and your body will be so stretched out. Besides, there are some moms who just can’t produce. The same thing goes for losing weight — lots of comparison and competition. When it comes to breastfeeding, the most I can do is advise mothers what is best for the baby in terms of meeting their nutritional needs.
Some doctors say you can’t spoil a baby. I don’t agree with that. When you hold them and cuddle them so much, the baby gets used to it and then doesn’t want to go down in their crib and only wants to sleep in someone’s arms. Trust me, this happens. I have to fight with new parents, and particularly grandparents, about the over-holding.
To do this job well, you must have love in your heart, you must be a people person, because you are going to meet a lot of different kinds of people, you must have a lot of patience, and you must be capable of going long hours without sleep. You also have to love teaching people things, which I do. I love passing knowledge on.