Life Mothers & Babies

Friday 22 August 2014

It's supernanny to the rescue...

From organising the house after a new arrival to ‘troubleshooting’, many families are turning to professionals to help them keep their busy lives in balance, writes Anna Murphy

Published 26/11/2008 | 00:00

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Supernanny Fiona O'Keefe with triplets, from left, Diarmuid, Maeve and Brendan. Diane Cusack

We've all watched in horror while television supernannies such as Jo Frost dole out the discipline to dysfunctional families in America and Britain. But did you know that all sorts of modern-day Mary Poppinses are now making their way into Irish homes -- and not just on the telly.

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Scour the ads in any supermarket or parenting website and you'll find a growing army of Irish supernannies willing to tackle our home-grown parenting problems.

From sleep therapists to maternity nurses to a simple set of extra hands, mummies' little helpers are coming in all shapes and sizes -- and chances are there's one lurking in an unruly house near you.

Jenny Campbell runs Dublin-based agency Executive Nannies.

The supernanny medicine may have taken a long time to get here, but it seems Irish parents are now swallowing it with gusto.

"It hit the US first over 10 years ago, and then the UK, but so-called 'supernannies' are growing in popularity here now," according to Jenny.

"We were supplying regular nannies anyway, and, because of customer demand, started to supply short-term 'supernannies'. These now make up about 20pc of our business.

"We don't use the term supernanny ourselves because it's a bit of a loose term.

"We usually talk about sleep therapists or behaviour therapists or maternity nurses, because they all offer a short-term service to sort out a particular problem."

With both parents facing into a full day at the office, couples simply can't afford a bad night's sleep -- but they can afford a supernanny.

"We see two scenarios," says Jenny.

"One is that a lot more women are working now, and a maternity nurse or supernanny became an affordable luxury.

"The other one is that a lot of women are just at their wits' end and, regardless of the money, they just need to do something for their sanity and well-being.

"Their job or their relationship might be really suffering because of a sleep or behavioural problem with their child and they just really need help and don't know where else to turn."

Cork-based Fiona O'Keefe is a mother of five by day, and a supernanny by night. She helps parents to instil a routine and takes over while they get some sleep.

O'Keefe has been flooded with requests for her services and says changing family structures are feeding the demand.

"Parents are older now and it's definitely harder to deal with the lack of sleep in your thirties than in your twenties," she says.

"Older parents also mean older grandparents, so they might not be able to help out so much. An awful lot of families don't live near each other any more, so there simply might not be any help at hand.

"On the flip-side, there's a lot more money around now, especially for older working couples, and people are willing to pay for the help they need."

When Joe and Sile had triplets late last year, they quickly realised that they wouldn't be able to cope on their own.

"I was just going to chance my luck, but shortly after they were born I advertised for someone to help us," says Sile.

"We knew Fiona was the right person because one of the first things she said was that she was really excited by the prospect of minding three babies!

'There were loads of things Fiona spotted that we wouldn't have, and the advice she gave us was invaluable.

"We were first-time parents, so it was great to have someone who knew what they were talking about."

With no formal qualifications Fiona, like many supernannies, says experience and routine are the secrets to her success.

"Basically what I do is to try to get the family into a routine.

"I stayed with the triplets for two nights every week until they had got into a stable routine and were sleeping through the night.

"I'm a stickler for routine and discipline and I'm in a better position to instil that than the parent. It's very daunting being a first-time parent, and what they want is advice from people other than their family -- they are looking for an expert, impartial opinion."

No matter what your parenting problem, chances are there's a supernanny to solve it.

Nuala Reddy has 20 years' experience minding children in London and Dublin.

She now works as a sleep and behaviour therapist and says there's no challenge she won't take on.

"I treat children who have all sorts of problems -- with sleep, with tantrums, with weaning, whatever. I'm open to dealing with any problem, and I haven't met a child yet that I haven't been able to help.

"Mostly, at the moment, I'm working as a sleep therapist, which can mean working with children from four months up to 11 years."

Parents usually book Nuala for just three nights. She comes, stays with the family through the night, and instructs them step by step on how to solve their sleep problems.

"You get people who haven't had a full night's sleep in years. When that happens, everything suffers: work, relationships, life.

"They are emotional basket cases. There are so many books out there all giving conflicting advice, and often people won't implement that advice unless there is someone there to enforce it.

"I think people are better off just getting someone in to sort out the problem once and for all. So that's what I do, I go in and make it all better."

For some families, making things all better might mean getting someone to wash the dishes or do the school run. Spotting the demand for a short-term rescue service after the arrival of a new baby, Aoife Rafferty set up Baby Concierge almost a year ago.

"The Baby Concierge service sort of just evolved from our Home Concierge service because there was a huge demand for it.

"Some people want a one-off service, maybe to get a house ready for a mother and baby coming out of hospital. Others use us for a few hours every day for the first six weeks or so. We go in and help around the house -- cooking, cleaning, babysitting, getting groceries or doing school runs -- all the things the mother was able to do herself before the new baby arrived."

However big the uptake of these services, few Irish mums own up to using them. The assumption that parenting comes naturally still holds sway, and many parents are embarrassed to say they paid for help.

"A lot of people don't tell anyone that I've been to their house," says sleep therapist Nuala Reddy.

"They feel they are admitting failure and keep it to themselves. If you've a plumbing problem, you'll gladly pay through the nose to get it sorted out as soon as possible, yet people are hesitant to get someone in to help them when it's to do with their child, and just hope the problem will eventually right itself."

Aoife Rafferty agrees that Irish parents are slow to admit to needing help.

"In places like the Netherlands and Sweden, our sort of service is part of the maternity package provided by the government. But here we seem to think that women should be able to manage by themselves, and I don't think we'll ever have a situation where the Government provides assistance. I think that's why Irish mums seem to be more reluctant to ask for help than foreign mums."

French-native Solene Beauvallois was the only Baby Concierge client happy to go on record as having used their services.

"Ireland has to move on a bit," says Solene. "If you need help and you can afford it, then you should take it. There are people out there crying out for help, but they won't get it because they feel they should be able to do everything themselves. In France there's a lot of help available but it is really lacking here and you can feel very isolated.

"I knew from previous difficult births that I might find it difficult to walk and get around for a while after the birth, so I booked Baby Concierge before the baby was born.

"I was getting maternity pay so that made it more affordable -- but it's the sort of thing I would put money aside for, it's so important."

Prices for all these services vary from €10 to €60 an hour. Baby Concierge costs €240 for a four-hour package, Fiona O'Keefe charges up to €100 per night-shift, while Nuala Reddy's sleep and behaviour therapy costs about €30 per hour.

But for many, a good night's sleep -- or a better-behaved child -- is priceless.

"I would actually borrow money for this service," says mother of triplets, Sile. "I don't know what we'd have done without it. I think our health would have broken otherwise."

For more information, contact Fiona O'Keefe on 021 4360136;.Baby Concierge on 01 4847181; and Nuala Reddy is contactable through Executive Nannies on 01 8731273

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