Real Life

Inside the life of a baby whisper

Dorothy Waide knows a thing or two about caring for newborns. Having spent decades settling celebrity babies around the world, she is now sharing her tips with Kiwi parents.

Dorothy Waide is standing with a baby in her arms, in a bustling home surrounded by five adults, three babies, a toddler and a cat. As she talks, she cuddles 10-week-old Frederick White. Within minutes he’s asleep.
It looks like magic, but maternity nurse Dorothy, dubbed ‘baby whisperer to the stars’ for her work with the children of celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe, is the first to admit there is nothing magic about it.
The technique the 60-year-old is using on little Fred is called ‘cupping’, and involves cuddling him close while moving him up and down with the palm of her cupped hand. Not to be confused with rocking, it’s an essential component of Dorothy’s strategy.
It works, she explains, because it imitates the movements felt in the womb. Dorothy, who has more than three decades experience as a maternity nurse, is a firm advocate for babies under 12 weeks being held as much as possible. The approach is the focus of her newly released book, You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn, which concentrates on the first three months of a baby’s life.
“Babies that little can’t self-settle,” Dorothy says of her philosophy. “I do nurturing within arms for the first 12 weeks and nurturing within boundaries after that.”
That means that after settling a baby to sleep in arms for the first three months, Dorothy usually recommends a gradual, supported transition into a cot. There she employs the same techniques used in the arms, such as cupping and verbal soothing to settle.
She says methods need to be personalised for each baby, depending on the way a family is made up and how they want to parent. For instance, when there’s a toddler in the family, the baby’s carer will need to pop in and out of the baby’s room while settling them, as opposed to other parents who may be able to stay put until their baby falls asleep.
“I aways said if I got to 35 and didn’t have the right partner, I would find a sperm donor, but then I went overseas…”
The consistent element of Dorothy’s philosophy is her belief that a baby’s carer needs to respond to its needs and ‘parent to sleep’.
Screen star Catherine Zeta-Jones and husband Michael Douglas were so impressed by Dorothy’s work, they have written the forward to her book. Dorothy stays in touch with the family, who she lived with over two years, and visited New York last year to attend 15-year-old Dylan’s bar mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony.
Their warm review of the “gifted and talented professional” includes the accolade, “We can honestly say we never found a baby-related problem that Dorothy was unable to solve.”
Ironically for such a maternal woman, Dorothy never had children of her own. Asked why, she says it was simply never the right time.
“I never found the right sperm donor or partner,” she says with a laugh. “I always said if I got to 35 and didn’t have the right partner, I would find a sperm donor, but then I went overseas, and forgot about that.”
So how does a Kiwi woman, without children, come to be a baby nurse in demand by Hollywood stars?
Dorothy’s Career with babies started at 16, when she left school in central Auckland to train as a Karitane nurse with the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society.
It was the 1970s, when it was common practice to let babies ‘cry it out’, a concept Dorothy has now moved well away from. But she says the maternity training was a solid grounding for her future career.
During her late teens and 20s Dorothy did some work as a maternity nurse, but as she was yet to have a long-term focus, she worked mostly in office jobs. There she learned the demands of the corporate world, an experience that gave her an understanding of the pressures working mums face.
The pull of babies was strong however, and she spent her spare time doing baby-care work before returning full-time to her passion. At 30 she signed up with two Kiwi nanny agencies and at 35 was sent to England to work for a family. She did not return to live in New Zealand for more than 20 years.
“In England I got on the books of a very old-fashioned maternity nurse, Patsy Smith, and my God you had to be good to get on there; she’d rather turn clients away than have riff-raff. She was awesome,” says Dorothy.
The role of a maternity nurse is to assist families with their newborns but Dorothy says her work extends to caring for the whole family.
“I was there to totally support and nourish the mother, the baby and the father. Holistically you are looking at the unit, and so if there are toddlers involved that includes them as well.”
Under Patsy, no-nonsense Dorothy was in high demand and had jobs lined up months in advance. “I did three years back-to-back with newborns so I know sleep deprivation,” she says with conviction.
“I know how the four walls come in and I know what goes on in a home. People may say I don’t know what I am doing because I am not a mother, but I have a lot of experience. The only things I haven’t done are give birth or breastfeed.”
From left to right: Dorothy looked after Russell Crowe and Danielle Spencer’s eldest son, Charlie. With employer Catherine Zeta-Jones.
One of the earliest jobs she secured in the UK was with a Welsh family who she became close to – they provided a base for her in between jobs and she joined them on their annual family holidays.
Her foray into America began when she was taken there by Australian journalist David Hill and wife Joan to assist them with their newborn in Los Angeles, where David was setting up Fox Sports. While there, she learned maternity nurses were paid much more in the US and decided to stay. She got her visa and put her name in the Green Card lottery, which she eventually won.
It was while working for Jennifer Lopez’s personal trainer, Gunnar Peterson, that Dorothy heard Catherine Zeta-Jones was pregnant.
By then she was well-connected in the US, and pledged to herself that she’d get the job. Sure enough, a phone call from her agent followed and she was soon on her way to Los Angeles to be interviewed by Catherine and Michael. She was so nervous, she got the time wrong and arrived a day early, but when finally seated opposite the famous couple, she was amazed at how calm she felt.
“It was just a hoot. They were so candid and casual. It was surreal – I just loved Catherine in Darling Buds of May and my favourite movie was American President [starring Michael Douglas]. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, I am talking to Catherine and Michael!’”
She got the job and went to New York to live with the family. “When I first went in everyone was very cordial, very polite, but before long we were all just part of one team. I spent a lot of time with Catherine because she was a first-time mum.”
Dorothy says the biggest myth about celebrity parents is that they are hands off – many are involved in everything, including the most challenging jobs.
“You work hand in hand with them. What you have to remember is these are working women; they don’t get 12 months off for maternity leave. They might have to do an overseas junket and you fill in the gaps where they can’t be, but absolutely all of my mums have had their babies sleep in their arms. I am just there to co-parent.”
The families she worked for were disparate, from the rich and famous to those who were having a maternity nurse paid for by a family member, but Dorothy says she was just as happy in a small home as she was in a mansion.
“After I worked for celebrities, people had the issue of, ‘Oh my God, how will she fit into our two-bedroom apartment, are we going to be waiting on her?’ They found it was the opposite.”
She says although the drawcard was always the babies, there were certainly perks to the celebrity roles – including attending the star-studded wedding of Catherine and Michael.
“The wedding was a culture shock! I wasn’t going to be there but then they decided Catherine wasn’t going to walk carrying Dylan, who was quite heavy. So I stood at the back of the room holding him, and all these hundreds of people were turning around trying to get a glimpse of him.”
When movie legend Jack Nicholson came for dinner one night, it proved too daunting, and Dorothy remembers hiding in her bedroom. “Michael asked me the next day why I didn’t come out and I said, ‘What and gawk at him?!’”
That was the early days however, and over time Dorothy became more at ease around celebrities and with being in the spotlight. “Sometimes if we went for a walk and knew cameras were out there, I’d think, ‘Why should they get all the glory?’” she says with a laugh. “I always made sure I was in those photos!”
She went on to meet a plethora of celebrities; Tom Cruise, Renée Zellweger, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Yoko Ono and John Cusack, and joined family holidays to Wales, Aspen, Spain, Mauritius, Bermuda and George Clooney’s villa in Italy.
It was Catherine and Michael who recommended Dorothy for her job with Russell Crowe and Danielle Spencer in Sydney, where she looked after Charlie Crowe for 15 months before returning to the US to work for the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner.
While she says it is difficult leaving families after the bonding that occurs, she is still in touch with many of the young adults she nursed as babies. She visits them when she’s overseas and has even had some of her ‘babies’ visit her.
Dorothy on duty – and, as she admits, making sure she’s in the photos!
Finally, in 2010, Dorothy returned to live in New Zealand, and set up a consulting business. She no longer does long-term live-in maternity care but goes into homes for eight to 24-hour periods, and specialises in ‘parenting to sleep’ strategies. She says her service helps cut through the masses of information today’s parents are faced with.
“That’s the difference for new mums now, compared to mothers in the old days – you used to get the knowledge from your family or your Plunket nurse. There wasn’t the information overload. There are massive extremes in views and each side criticises the other – what are mums meant to do? I take the good from the left and the good from the right, put it in a hat and walk down the middle,” she explains.
Still, her Facebook page is a plethora of debate. Some find the idea of Dorothy’s ‘nurturing in arms technique’ too intensive. But she says her strategy is flexible and can be adapted to suit different parenting styles. She points out that when she is working with a family, she is led by the parent’s vision, and is there to assist them with their goals.
On the subject of critics, she shrugs. “I haven’t just done this with one family and one baby; I’ve done it with different families and different cultures in different countries. It’s been a journey of helping many babies with varying needs.”
She is well aware that not every family can afford a consultant and hopes her book will help a broad spectrum of parents.
“My belief is that we should be educating our parents early – supporting our mothers in antenatal classes and during the newborn stage. If we could teach them initially that babies do need movement – but movement that can be done on their bodies, then in a cot – they wouldn’t end up in a situation where they have to let their babies cry it out.”
Asked about recent negative reports about sleep consultants in New Zealand, Dorothy is reluctant to comment, but what she will say is research needs to be done into the qualifications of the people offering their services.
“You become a mother and you get someone in to help you because your baby is difficult, then you get trained by her and become a sleep consultant. Does that sit well with you?” she asks with raised eyebrows.
Dorothy’s experience is one thing that certainly can not be denied, and watching her balancing a toddler in one arm and a baby in the other, it’s clear her work is not done yet – whether that be in West Hollywood or, like today, in West Auckland.
“I feel very privileged because I have touched many lives; it’s so amazing to share that time and to support and encourage people to nurture, especially in today’s society where we need to slow down more.”
You Simply Can’t Spoil a Newborn by Dorothy Waide, Bateman Publishers, $40.
Dorothy’s settling technique
  1. Feed and swaddle your baby, put her in her cot and walk out. As soon as she cries, respond – pick her up, engulf her and sit. Your body becomes her bed.
  2. Let her cry/grizzle within arms (about a minute), then ‘cup’ and shush her. Stop and start until you feel she is ready to fall asleep. Ideally with a newborn baby that will happen really quickly, but with a baby with reflux or colic it takes longer.
  3. Once she goes to sleep, sit and hold her. Anytime she moves or stirs – cup and shush. Around the 45-minute mark, cup them through to the next, deeper, sleep cycle.
  4. When she’s been in your arms for about 75 minutes in total, stand and cup and shush her while you walk her to her cot.
  5. Place her in and leave the room. Respond as soon as she cries and start the next wake cycle.
Dorothy’s parenting tips
  1. Crying/grizzling is not a negative communication, it is how your baby talks to you – stop, listen and respond.
  2. Settle your baby in your arms using only movements you can replicate in the cot.
  3. Remember your baby is a person and it is not necessary to pass her around or wake her for visitors. Restrict visitors until you are ready to entertain.
  4. Breastfeeding can be the hardest job a mother does – ensure you have a good village of supportive friends and family around you.
  5. Fuel your body with food and water and take time out for you – even if it is just a walk to the letterbox.
  6. You are your baby’s expert/baby whisperer – hold on to this thought to get you through the day.
Words by: Nicola Russell
Photos: Mike Rooke
Hair and make-up by: Claudia Rodrigues
Baby and toddler clothing by: Dimples

read more from