Arts & Entertainment

The Baby Whisperer

Katy Mendoza not only helps bring new babies into the world at North Valley Hospital, she also documents their first days of life

WHITEFISH – Katy Mendoza’s five-day-old subject lay on a fluffy fur-covered beanbag, soft on softer, just right for a newborn still in the shock of awakening senses outside the womb.

Mewling noises emerged as Mendoza expertly swaddled the tiny babe in a scarf, leaving only his face, arms, and feet visible, the rest of him cocooned in warmth and that special comfort of being wrapped up tight.

“I love the toes,” Mendoza said as she made the final adjustment before snapping her first few photos. “I don’t know what it is, I just love them.”

The Wednesday photo shoot was a milestone for Kari Donovan and Devin Jackson, whose son Cobin had just come into the world. For Mendoza, shutter speeds and baby feet are her calling; not only does she photograph all the newborns at North Valley Hospital’s Birth Center, she’s also a labor and delivery nurse there.

And even before the new parents make it to the birthing center, they may run into Mendoza as she teaches childbirth education classes, which typically run for six weeks as the parents learn the ins and outs of what’s about to happen to them.

“Sometimes I get to do it all, from the classes to the birth to the pictures. I tell the moms to give birth on Wednesdays,” Mendoza said, laughing.

In the five years she’s been shooting photos of the valley’s newest residents, Mendoza estimates that she’s captured memories for about 2,500 babies and their families.

Photos courtesy Katy Mendoza | Lot 22 Photography

Everyone who gives birth at North Valley is offered the free photo shoot, and afterward they receive a code allowing them to view the photos online for a month. If they so choose, they can order digital copies or physical prints. But everything up to that point is volunteer work on her part, Mendoza said.

All she needs is a clean, unoccupied room and she gets to work with her portable studio. Good lighting, a basket of hats for newborns, piles of scarves, and other props are the standard, but Mendoza has had families bring in their own talismans, from rodeo ropes and saddles to law enforcement badges and firefighter hats.

Mendoza also runs Lot 22 Photography, the name an homage to the land she and her husband Nick first purchased in Whitefish. They bought the 22nd lot in a development after visiting Whitefish for three days in 2007, and Mendoza, who has “always been drawn to double numbers,” was inspired to start her photography business.

The family made the move from San Diego, where Mendoza had been working as a nurse and was just starting to play around with maternity photo shoots for her friends, to Montana in 2008, six months after buying the property.

When she’s not busy with her three jobs, she’s busy with her three kids: a pair of 14-year-old twins and an 11-year-old daughter.

Photos courtesy Katy Mendoza | Lot 22 Photography

Cobin lasted through three outfits, which is a long time for newborns. His mom soothed him with a finger in his mouth, which he sucked at voraciously, until she removed it for about 10 seconds, while Mendoza’s camera clicked.

Mendoza reckons she gets a smile out of one in 10 babies, another feat considering newborn smiles are spontaneous and often part of the REM cycle. Eventually, she’d like to have a wall of smiles from her tiny subjects.

As the shoot wrapped up, the family got Cobin re-dressed and into a quiet room to nurse. Mendoza was already on her way to her next subject, a bundle of joy only a day-and-a-half old just down the hall in one of the Birth Center’s spacious, comfortable rooms.

Another round of swaddling — “I could do this with my eyes closed,” she said as she made a perfect, enviable wrap — and the latest subject was ready for her close-up. Mendoza handled the infant expertly and gently, knowing time was of the essence.

One outfit later, Mendoza handed the baby back to mom. One outfit was long enough for the little one to be away, she said, as the babe snuggled back into mom’s chest.

Mendoza’s knowledge and steady hands help put new parents at ease as she documents the first moments of their child’s life, making her background as a labor and delivery nurse an integral piece of her photography success.

She would take pictures of six to 10 babies that day, and again the next Wednesday. Despite spending hours and hours with infants and their families, the joy and wonder of it all hasn’t yet worn off for Mendoza. In fact, it all works together seamlessly.

“I still really like all three jobs,” Mendoza said in between snapping photos.

This story has been updated to add Devin Jackson’s last name.