Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Hi Sarah! BabyCalm has been helping parents for five years now; can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start the company?

I have worked for the last 10 years with new parents but I worked as an antenatal teacher, so what I found is that I was preparing them to birth really well, I taught something called hypnobirthing, so they’d all had a really really lovely birth but they would all contact me afterwards and say “You know the birth was great but help! What do we do now? Now that we’ve got the baby, we didn’t think about that beforehand and we don’t know what to do. Do you offer classes? Can we come back?” I didn’t offer anything, and I looked around for sort of other things I could train in so that I could offer them classes. I didn’t really find anything that kind of grabbed me; anything that I thought would really fit very well. So, I started my own back in 2007.

Initially it was just for the parents I taught hypnobirthing to, so that they could come back and learn more about how be calm and how to calm a baby and sort of carry the same ethos through to parenting. That was just in my living room in 2007, and I’d teach maybe six people a month in one group. Slowly I started to get requests from all over the country – somebody in Dorset said would you come down to Dorset and run a group? Then I had someone in Dubai say would you come here and teach me?

And I always said “well no because I sort of run this in my living room in Saffron Walden” But then I started getting other professionals saying “Sarah where did you learn to do this? Who did you train with” and I said, “Well I didn’t. I couldn’t find anything so I made my own course.” And I kind of kept saying, “Sorry I can’t help you” for about three or four years. Then one of the girls I’d taught Babycalm and hypnobirthing to said, “I think we should make a business doing antenatal classes” and I said “I think the antenatal market is absolutely saturated in the UK, but I’ll tell you what, there’s a real gap for early baby classes.” Obviously, I couldn’t do it by myself so to have somebody else with me was great.

We started in February of last year – did our first training in April – we had 15 people train to be teachers with us and now, 20 months later, we’ve got about 120 teachers in the UK and we’re in lots of different countries overseas as well.

Did you ever expect for it to get this big?

No (laughs) and certainly not this quickly as well. We had plans that for maybe three years we’d be in the UK and then we’ll see if there’s a market to go to different countries. But within a year we’ve had people flying over to us – we’ve just trained two people from Dubai who flew over, somebody’s flying over to us from South Africa in December, and we’ve just trained somebody who’s going to take it back to New Zealand next month and somebody who’s going to Canada with it next month too. So yes it’s been exciting and we didn’t expect it. We kind of had to think running if you see what I mean – the business plans and all that – that’s not quite what’s happening!  

Sometimes, mums and dads can feel embarrassed by attending parenting classes, and often there can be a stigma around attending parenting classes – what advice would you give to these parents who feel that way?

Actually the nice thing about people who come to ours is that because most people accept that babies, newborns, are really hard work, there isn’t a stigma. But with the ToddlerCalm classes, there’s definitely a stigma around those because less people are happy to say “I can’t cope with my toddler” but with the newborns I think it’s a universal truth that babies cry a lot and people don’t get much sleep. And anything that helps is a Godsend. I don’t think there’s a new mother out there who doesn’t need some help.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the BabyCalm classes work – what makes them different and why should parents attend?

With BabyCalm we have three different options; we have our antenatal workshop which is a workshop for three hours that couples, mums and dads take, when they’re still pregnant and in those three hours we basically give them a crash course on reasons why babies cry and how to calm your baby, how to get more sleep and how to be more confident. So the idea is that we’re giving a bit of preparation beforehand so that they can cope in the early days.

We also do a post-natal workshop, which is very much like a rescue service, almost. It’s pretty much always taken privately and we ordinarily get somebody phoning us in tears saying “help my baby won’t stop crying. I don’t know what to do” and our teachers sort of come round to their house and rescue them in three hours and give them lots of hints and tips.

When I had children, I had no routine, no order, actually most days I didn’t get dressed when I first had a baby. It would get to dinner time and I would think “Oh my God, I haven’t had breakfast yet"

The other thing we do is our four-week mum and baby course, each week is two hours, and mums will come while their babies are still really small. Both of the workshops [mentioned above] are for dads as well but what we found is that the mums really wanted a safe space where they could talk about the issues they were facing. So lots of them, for example, talk about difficulties breastfeeding. It might be the first time they’ve had to breastfeed in public, they’ll talk about stitches healing and lots of stuff they don’t feel comfortable talking about in front of dads. Each week is very discussion based and we’ll also do some baby massage and other things, but very much the aim of the course is supporting the mums to be confident and do things their own way.

One of the biggest differences there is that actually there’s nothing else really available when you’ve got a baby that’s three weeks old. All the usual classes tend to start when the babies are eight weeks old so you have this horrible gap of eight weeks when you’ve been discharged by the midwife but you can’t go to baby massage classes or anything because the baby’s not old enough. So, we’re really trying to fill that gap.

You have such vast knowledge of so many areas of parenting, but you say that you don’t like to be called a ‘baby expert’ or ‘parenting expert’, why is that?

Because I think it’s really undermining for parents. Yes I do have  a vast knowledge, I know  lots of medical stuff, a lot of psychology stuff and I’ve got four children, but, I’ve never had that other person’s baby. Nobody knows a baby as well as the parents do. Nobody’s an expert in all babies.

What my aim and our aim at babycalm is to try and help the parents feel that they know best and give them the confidence that they don’t actually need the expert. I refuse to go on these helplines where people call you up and get your advice for like £1.50 a minute, because I don’t think it helps. You keep the parent disempowered and they keep thinking that you’re better than them and that you know better than them and they’ll keep coming to you.

I interview all our teachers before they start and one lady said to me, “I don’t understand how you keep getting work, how do you keep them coming back to you so you get the constant flow of money?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Once the parents have done the four-week course, how do you get more money from them?” And I said, “Well we don’t. That’s the point – we don’t want them to come back. We want them to feel like they don’t need any more help!”

You’re a mum of four young children, what’s the best thing about being a parent for you and how do you balance motherhood with a successful business?

Oh gosh, I don’t sleep (laughs), I’m joking! I think for me it’s taught me patience. I was just so selfish before I had children and then, it sounds like such a cheesy cliché, but you kind of feel like you’re here for a reason and everything is about them. It’s not as though I’ve given my life away but I just feel privileged and special and, I guess, always loved.

I’m like Margaret Thatcher; I sort of thrive on five hours sleep a night which is quite lucky. My kids are all at school now so I’m quite fortunate, but when they were little I used to only work in the evenings and weekend when they were in bed or when my husband was here, so we didn’t need childcare. Now, I drop them off at school at 9am, race home and try and cram 10 hours’ worth of work into a six-hour working day, pick them up again, do mum stuff, cook dinner, they go to bed and I get on the laptop again in the evening. I go to bed at midnight pretty much every night.

What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as a parent in terms of the transition to motherhood and how did you handle it?

For me, I think the hardest thing was, before I had children I had a really good job, I used to work for this pharmaceutical company in marketing and I earned a lot of money, I had a company car, I had a pensions scheme and our company was a Swiss company so I used to fly to Switzerland at the drop of a hat. And I was so in control of everything in my life, my life was timetabled, I’d be at work by 8.30am, leave at 5pm, eat my lunch at 1pm, I had a facial every third Saturday and a haircut every fourth Saturday. So I was so in control and it was so ordered and then I’d also get appraisals at work which helped with confidence because by boss would say “You’re doing a really great job, here have this bonus.”

When I had children, I had no routine, no order, actually most days I didn’t get dressed when I first had a baby. It would get to dinner time and I would think “Oh my God, I haven’t had breakfast yet.” And people don’t say “Well done you’re being a great mother.” Nobody complimented me on my mothering skills and it was really hard. I had no way to measure if I was doing a good job; there are no appraisals to check if you’re doing a good job as a mother.

I think overcoming that is just about time and confidence, and for me, as one of the unwritten aims of BabyCalm, we are trying to replace that network you would have had around 100 or 200 years ago when family was really close and important and you’d always be surrounded by experienced mothers like your mother, your sister or your aunt. So you were always exposed to other mothers and there was always that support and help from the family around you.

But now people live so far apart from their families that it’s really difficult. So at BabyCalm we try to give mothers that support from other experienced mothers to perhaps replace what we would have had a couple of hundred years ago. I think having support from an experienced mother is important, and for me it was mostly my baby massage teacher, who was an ex-midwife, she just took me under her wing really.

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