‘What to Expect’ when you’re a professional movie baby wrangler

Thelma Adams
The Reel BreakdownMay 18, 2012

With all the infants in the parenting comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting," I got to wondering: Who's minding all those baby actors? I discovered that there's such a thing as a baby wrangler, and that was Dawn Jeffory-Nelson's job on this shoot. So Yahoo! asked her all about the tears, the tantrums -- and what all those babies were up to while the adult stars misbehaved!

Thelma Adams: So Dawn, let's start by the numbers: How many babies did you use?

Dawn Jeffory-Nelson: We had 12 sets of twins, and we had about 45 individual babies. This included everything from our newborn infants for our stars to the babies J.Lo worked with and the babies in the Ethiopian adoption scenes. And then we had about 30 to 35 young kids between the ages of 5 to 15 or 16 because of various scenes at the aquarium, and at Elizabeth Banks' little shop. So we were a very minor-friendly production.

[Video: Cameron Diaz reveals her sweaty baby bump problem]

TA: Male or female: Which work better?

DJ: Pretty much both boys and girls because the dudes in the film alone have seven kids between them. With the teensy tiny babies, every once in a while we had a boy playing a girl.

TA: Did you ever use dolls?

DJ: We had them available to us because there were times that we knew it was possible that we might run out of time. The company was extraordinary in being respectful to the children's needs. In the finished movie, there's only one place where a doll was used. We went to a lot of expense in order to protect the babies. My little critters were just amazing, those munchkins!

TA: What was the biggest challenge with all those infants?

DJ: The younger they are, the more it's about keeping them happy and making them feel safe. My job definition is paid fool. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. The hardest is having a sleeping baby in the shot and trying to time it so that they are, indeed, pooped and exhausted.

TA: So how did you pull that off without having a squawking, cranky, overtired baby?

DJ: By making sure you can do it at their normal nap time. So that … when the baby is ready for a nap we can shoot then and there.

TA: What happened when the babies started crying — and that wasn't in the script?

DJ: That happened a lot. Sometimes the baby was a little warm, or just over the scene, so that they might need me to run in and use my magic mesmerizer.

TA: What's that?

DJ: It's a toy I would use. Or I would just say I need a time-out here. I'd hold the baby, juggle the baby, or whisper in their ear. Sometimes we would need a quiet baby. There was too much activity, so we would move on to another angle and then creep back in once I got a sleeper.

[Photos: 'What to Expect' L.A. premiere gallery]

TA: Any other awkward moments?

DJ: Diaper changes are often funny, too, because you're in the middle of shooting or rehearsing the scene and all of a sudden one of the stars gets a look on their face — and you gotta change the baby!

TA: Are there any real-life techniques parents can take away?

DJ: Having done this for so long now, I feel like I could write a parenting book because I have to so quickly assess brand new babies. One of my secret weapons is Cheerios. My babies will do almost anything for me for Cheerios.

TA: Obviously, that would be babies that are already eating solid food.

DJ: Yes. They are eating solid food. No baby gets something if they aren't already there with their mom and dad. I don't give them the ones with sugar, either.

TA: Why not?

DJ: I don't like to use sugar as a reward. Sugar affects the babies no matter what anybody says it does. It will make them hyper and then there's a crash, and so they then become chemically unable to be as responsive normally as they could be.

TA: And what is that "mesmerizer" you mentioned?

DJ: The babies stop like a deer in the headlights when I use the mesmerizer. It looks like a flashlight with a globe on the top of it, with colored LED lights that make wonderful E.T. patterns. I started using those years ago.

That's what solidified my job on this film, because I'd gone through several days of casting with our casting people in Atlanta. We had our final choices for our major babies for the dudes. We had a session where they had to meet their star daddies -- Chris Rock, Thomas Lennon, Rob Huebel, Amir Talai -- and we also had Jennifer Lopez, who was going to meet her babies. And, as can happen with babies in a room if one gets fractious or shy, it's usually an epidemic. I had put each one of the celebrities around their babies and stepped back and the babies started crying and I started singing and joking and brought out the mesmerizer. And they all stopped. The director then said: "OK, I get a baby wrangler. I understand the need."

[Video: Meet the 'Dudes Group']

TA: What experience did you have to become a wrangler?

DJ: I've done about five or six features and 50 commercials, and six or seven pilots, and four or five series for about 15 years. From the time I was 12, I was always that kid who babysat a family of five. I probably never grew up. I think like them.

TA: Do you have any kids of your own?

DJ: No kids. It's a weird quirk of fate.

TA: Do you have pets?

DJ: Of course! I have two four-legged children: a miniature beagle named Coco, who was the lead beagle in the original "Cats & Dogs." And I have a Jack Russell terrier named Jesse who's passed out next to me while we speak. The only time he's quiet is when he's napping.

TA: What's easier: puppies or babies?

DJ: They're similar. For example, I would sing a song and gently rub a baby's cheek and the baby would smile. Then I would step back behind the camera and sing that same song and the baby would smile. And that's not that different from training puppies. It's a very similar process — neither has much language skills -- babies and puppies. Without being insulting to children, they're so similar.

"What to Expect When You're Expecting" is in theaters now. Watch clips from the movie below.

Clip: Our Turf Clip: Welcome to Escrow Clip: Wedding Photo Clip: So Are We

[Related: Find showtimes and tickets for 'What to Expect']