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For some, parenting takes a consultant

Professionals aid frazzled families

The nightly battle of wills played out in the frilly room with the big-girl bed, toddler versus grown-up, the clock ticking minutes, then hours past bedtime. Lily, 3, would request one story, and another, and another. She would plead, in a voice quavering with emotion, "No, Mommy, don't leave ."

So her mother, Christine Tynan, did what more and more people struggling through the trials of parenthood -- poor sleeping and potty-training, picky eating and temper tantrums -- have begun to do: She called in an expert.

And it wasn't her mother.

Tynan turned to a parenting coach, a new breed of consultants who provide advice once sought primarily from grandmothers, neighbors, and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Their popularity has led to new schools, like the Parent Coaching Institute in Bellevue, Wash. A reality TV show, currently looking for families here in Boston, features Jo Frost as the unflappable Supernanny.

The coaches charge hundreds of dollars for a few hours of work, dispensing advice and soothing frazzled nerves of over extended moms and dads. The consultants, largely unlicensed and unregulated, are increasing in popularity. Since 2003, the Parent Coaching Institute has issued 75 certificates requiring a year of study.

Angela Chansky, a Natick coach, said she has had 10 clients over the last year, and could have had many more if she'd had the time for them. "All parents have questions," Chansky said.

To those who follow the trends of child care, the development is the latest step in popularized parenting advice -- following Richard Ferber, beloved by some groggy parents for teaching bedtime methods that help their young children to sleep, and the late Dr. Spock, whose books reassured parents by mostly telling them to trust their instincts. T. Berry Brazelton, founder of the Touchpoints Project at Children's Hospital, which trains pediatricians, child-care providers, and other professionals, said the willingness of some families to pay for parenting coaches reflects the growing stresses of modern parenthood.

"It sounds like people are very afraid of making mistakes," said Brazelton, also a popular author of child-care books. Striking a cautionary note, he said: "I think parenting is learning from mistakes. I hesitate for people to be so worried about making mistakes."

To be sure, serious child-rearing problems are best handled by specialists, including child psychologists and social workers. And pediatricians should be the first stop for health questions. But in the hectic pace of medicine today, most pediatricians have only minutes to spend with patients, barely enough time to cover medical issues, let alone potty training or food-throwing.

In Tynan's case, she turned to Dr. Mo -- Maureen O'Brien of Canton, who has a PhD in child development. The cost for O'Brien's visit and two phone sessions: $300.

O'Brien arrived at Tynan's Milton house at Lily's bedtime and watched the daily battle unfold. She suggested that Tynan allow Lily some control, by letting her pick out two books to read and decide when to drink her bedtime glass of water. And then, O'Brien said, Tynan needed to set limits.

"It was very simple advice," said Tynan, who saw a vast improvement in her daughter's bedtime routine after Dr. Mo's visit. "I guess I just needed an outside person to tell me that."

The popularity of shows like "Supernanny" and "Nanny 911" -- where stern women march into homes filled with wild children, assigning time-outs on "naughty mats," and whipping everyone into shape -- has helped fuel awareness of parenting coaches. In the Boston area, parenting coaches seem to find most of their clients in the suburbs. Not everyone can afford the price of advice.

"You have the dual income so you can afford to do something," said Stephanie Goldman, a manager at Samsonite and Canton mother who hired O'Brien after her 18-month-old bit other children at day care.

In Goldman's case, she and her husband were horrified to hear about their daughter's behavior. "We didn't want our child to get kicked out of day care," she said.

O'Brien spent more than two hours at Goldman's house, observing interactions. If the toddler bit, O'Brien suggested, Goldman or the day-care provider should hold her facing away, her arms down at her sides -- and, Goldman said, it worked.

The demand for expert advice also seems to stem from the anxiety of many parents struggling to raise children in an uncertain world. And parents working long hours often find themselves isolated from family and friends, Brazelton said, less exposed to the kind of informal advice that long helped earlier generations raise their children.

"I think there's always been a need for parent coaching," O'Brien said. "We just used to call it mother-in-law visits and playgrounds and shared experiences."

O'Brien officially launched her coaching business, Destination Parenting, six months ago. But she had spent years working for nonprofit groups helping at-risk parents learn to care for their children. As O'Brien raised her own twins, now 13, she began to realize that all parents sometimes need help.

"In some ways, parents are not sure what kind of limits to set with children," said Lisa Machoian, a Cambridge parenting coach and psychologist who works with teenagers. "I think that's become a little bit harder with popular culture these days because there's so many things that kids want."

Sherri Horlick, of Natick, called Chansky, the Natick coach, when she struggled to toilet-train her 3-year-old daughter. "She's my only child and I didn't really have any experience with it," Horlick said. "My doctor said, 'When she's ready, you'll know.' "

But Horlick felt that she didn't know. So she turned to Chansky, who advised her to stop putting diapers on her daughter, who "picked it up within two days."

Horlick, who works full time, was 38 when she gave birth. Because expert advice was available, she wanted to take advantage of it, rather than muddle through.

"I think mothers are older, with more education, and they want to do things a better way," she said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at