Weekend Interview: From Bump To Baby. Breaking Down Taboos Of Pregnancy
Group News Editor Andrew Palmer talks to entrepreneur and founder of My Expert Midwife, Lesley Gilchrist.
Image by Marjon Besteman from Pixabay
It’s not often I get chatting with a midwife about the issues that women face during pregnancy.
But that’s the point! For Lesley Gilchrist, mum, successful entrepreneur and now recognised in JP Morgan’s Female-Powered Companies report, there’s plenty to learn for everyone including the birthing partner.
Having qualified in 2003 and worked in two of the biggest teaching hospitals in Europe: Leeds and Newcastle, Lesley set up My Expert Midwife in 2017 with Claire Charlton, as a response to hearing first-hand the problems women were facing in pregnancy.
“The idea for My Expert Midwife came about whilst I was caring for women during and after pregnancy.
“I had my own private midwifery practice so could give women more time than an NHS appointment would allow. That meant I could build closer bonds, giving me valuable insights into many of the problems as the women were a lot more honest about their struggles, postnatal ailments, and painful trauma after birth,” Lesley told me.
This led Lesley to recognise the need for skincare products and identify a gap in the market. It turned out there were a lack of brands offering a credible solution for the physical challenges faced by women pre- and post-birth.
That was the lightbulb moment.
“It was almost altruistic. You have discussions about the suffering women are going through and it begins to dawn there is nothing to help ease the aftereffects of birth. That’s when Claire and I got together and realised we could help; after all that is why I went into midwifery. As we discussed the initial products, the ideas for more and more just followed. We spoke to a number of players who had worked in the baby industry and got great ideas telling us we were on the right track.”
With literally nothing on the market to help women recover from giving birth except water, Lesley started to gather a lot of knowledge and began to understand there was more that could be done, and needed, to help the recovery process.
“We did wonder why there wasn’t anything on the market, so we started researching.”
Luckily, Lesley has a masters in clinical research methods, so she quickly got started. First, contacting the Medicines Agency, she found that the use of essential oils was just phenomenal.
“There was so much evidence behind their efficacy and safety to the point that The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had recognised them as a medicinal agent. Then I checked with some NHS hospitals, which were running aromatherapy clinics within their maternity departments and making tinctures using essential oils.
“This proved there was obviously something available, although it was just a postcode lottery across the UK”.
For the budding entrepreneurs, an idea began to germinate, and Lesley started an aromatherapy course to get a better understanding of what could be achieved.
But there was another problem - getting funding to start the business.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon women find it tough to get funding, but we were fortunate we were both in a position to fund the enterprise ourselves.
“When you come up with the idea it’s a case of, if we are thinking about this, others must be too. It was a case of it will either work or it won’t, or someone will have done this before. For Claire and me neither was the case, we were truly fortunate.
“So, it was a race to get to market.”
As the duo set off on their journey, a technical director of a manufacturer, chemists and aromatherapists gave advice.
One thing the entrepreneurs were clear about was on the choice of ingredients.
“We were adamant what must be included and what we didn’t want. We also wanted them to be as natural as possible.”
As Lesley says, “We were prepared to go against conventional advice and go for top ingredients, opting for the absolute best. If that meant spending more, then so be it.
“There are a lot of cheaper synthetic chemicals, but we would need to put in more preservatives because they don’t do the job effectively.
“It’s not that they are unsafe, using cheaper ingredients means we have to add more synthetic preservatives. We use a natural preservative, which is extremely expensive, but it does mean we don’t have to add synthetic chemicals.
“Our lanolin based nipple balm uses coconut oil because it is a natural anti-fungal and almond oil to soften so it glides on easily, but it is an expensive option.
“Medical grade lanolin is in there because it’s completely tasteless and odourless otherwise that’s what babies would smell and taste
“And then for our skin serum to help tight, dry and itchy skin, we didn’t want to have a predominantly water based and gum product. Most products use water to thin and dilute it and then thickened with gum at the end.
“Using oils and butters makes a huge difference to the efficacy of the product and how the product is absorbed into the skin and offers more benefits but that comes at a premium as well.”
Having sourced the ingredients according to the company values, the next thing was to start building a marketing campaign. Leeds creative agency, Clearsilver took an initial punt on Lesley and Claire, despite them being unknown, and helped them build the foundations of the brand that it is today.
Lesley says that when she spoke to pregnant women before the launch, the market research showed that women had felt guilty if they prioritised anything over their babies.
Getting products into major retailers proved easier than Lesley anticipated.
Boots was the first retailer they approached. Lesley was fully prepped and primed.
“I was warned it could be really tricky and not to be offended about difficult questions. I was ready for a very tough meeting and subsequent negotiations.
“But we were only in there 20 mins, walking out with a commitment from Boots to list us in 500 stores. I remember saying to the Commercial Director ‘is it always like this?’ She just laughed and said: ‘I have never known that in my life.’
“All the other retailers were the same. I think they got the brand immediately understanding what we wanted to do and our passion for helping women plus how we align the educational aspects of what we do.”
The educational side is especially important for Lesley. She says the midwifery team wanted to reflect their values and offer an authentic service to help women and birthing partners with accurate advice and information.
“When you break the mould as we did, you have to constantly find different ways to get the message out there.
“We have a lot of educational content: eBooks, guides, blogs, videos, really rich content so women who can’t afford private antenatal classes have a rich source of information available to educate themselves. They also get emotional support in addition to the physical aspect of helping recovery and during pregnancy.
Another area where My Expert Midwife has strong opinions is on the subject of antenatal classes. The issue is that they are not regulated and according to Lesley, they should be. Women need and want accurate information.
“If they do an online search, women understand that some of the information may not be accurate. But with antenatal classes they assume the information they are getting is correct and up-to-date.
“A quick search for antenatal teachers, Andrew, highlights the problem. A search comes up with a plethora of different companies all offering training via a three day course for anything between £750 or £1K.
"That’s all the training you have to do! But women and their antenatal partners rely on correct education and information to prepare them for birth. Of course, there are some teachers that are brilliant, have a huge wealth of knowledge but there are also a lot of t lay people, , who do a lot of training and although they may see a lot of births and understand the process, there is no way of actually checking how regulated they are.”
Cathy Tabner, is one of the in-house midwives
“Antenatal classes can be a great place to meet other mums and dads but should also equip expecting parents with a depth of knowledge and understanding which enables them to feel confident and ready to birth and meet their baby. At My Expert Midwife, we know that no one has more experience with the pregnancy and parenting journey than midwives, which is why our antenatal classes are exclusively midwife-led. “
That is why Lesley only employs midwives to teach their antenatal classes, there is no freelance or franchise model. Lesley wants midwives to be very much part of the team. Everyone works collaboratively together sharing information.
Midwives are highly regulated by the Nurses and Midwifery Council, and they have annual professional development plans to complete to stay on the register.
“With unparalleled knowledge and experience, our team of expert midwives provide vital insight into how maternity services work and ultimately empower expecting parents to feel informed and confident in being able to make the right decisions for themselves and their baby during pregnancy, birth and early parenthood.
“There are the true medical needs which require a clinical solution and we tackle that too. Take for example, 80% of women will suffer from vomiting and nausea during pregnancy but only about 2% of those will be so severe that they have to take medication for it to help the problem.
So, a huge majority of women that will not have medication but battle on through nausea up to 12 – 14 weeks, we designed a range of products that uses essential oils to help tackle that.
“We care about the people who work for us, and our profession is all about friendship, kindness and compassion whilst giving a realistic approach to birth and prepare for them for all of that.
It’s going to be a remarkably busy and exciting 18 months ahead led this month, My Expert Midwife has expanded its business offering from skincare to education, launching its own 100% midwife-led antenatal course programme to help expecting mums and of course, dads across the UK, on their journey into parenthood.