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Sharon Ward talks to Workingmums.co.uk about how she set up her Teddy & Me business providing clothes for premature babies just months before she herself had a premature baby.
Sharon Ward set up her business selling premature baby clothes after giving up her job in the print industry. But it wasn’t until a few years later when she had her own premature child that she really understood the issues parents go through. The business is now thriving and her passion has seen her nominated for a major mumpreneur award.
Sharon got involved in working with premature babies by chance. She had given up her job of 17 years because her son was ill and was living on an estate where there were not many families with young children. She felt isolated so when a friend who was doing some work for ADAPT, a premature baby charity at Leicester Royal Infirmary, invited her to come along she took it as a good chance to get out of the house. The charity’s committee met in a room near the hospital’s premature baby unit and parents of premature babies were encouraged to join in meetings. At the first meeting parents were talking about the lack of suitable clothes for premature babies.
“I was at a loose end and so when my son was sleeping I searched for clothes on the internet,” says Sharon. Most were too big and impractical. She started bringing new clothes she had found to the unit every month. “I wasn’t looking to set up a business,” she says. After a year of doing that she had built up quite a good knowledge of the clothing problems associated with premature babies. She decided to look at what kind of clothes would work if she was to start from scratch and, armed with some drawings, she knocked on the door of a manufacturer. “I was told to go away. The man implied that if I was a bored housewife I should take up knitting. That incensed me,” she says.
She contacted another manufacturer in Nottingham, who she still works with. “I now realise what a huge favour they were doing me,” she says. They developed six outfits over 18 months and neo-natal units were involved in the process. They had to pool information on the average body size of a premature baby at various stages of gestation. “If the outfit is too big it creates pressure points if it gathers at the back. But it needs to be big enough for all the tubes,” says Sharon.
By March 2008 the six outfits were ready and the manufacturer made 20 of each outfit in pink and blue. Hospitals started to contact Sharon. She used the money from sales to invest in more outfits.
Sharon joined MumsClub at around this time. They told her about a mumpreneur competition on This Morning. Within 24 hours of submitting her application, the programme had contacted her and invited her to London. She did a live pitch on the programme and got through to the final day of judging. One of the judges was entrepreneur Judy Naake who loved the business, named Teddy & Me, from day one. She gave Sharon her contact details.
In addition, someone put her pitch on Youtube and she was inundated with orders from all over the world. She wasn’t in a position to mass produce clothes, but Judy invested and became a director, which gave the business the ability to move forward. It is now selling in five countries, mainly in independent boutiques, but also in John Lewis.
Sharon says she just happened to be “in the right place at the right time”.
Then in 2010 after being told she couldn’t have any more children she had her second child. It was not an easy pregnancy and Daniel [pictured] was born six weeks premature. She had been showing signs of pre-eclampsia and at a check-up her doctor told her to go home and come back straight away. She had a lot of orders to deal with, though. She collapsed in her living room, but not realising how sick she was and feeling the need not to let down her customers, she got herself up and went to the Post Office with her son to post her orders.
“I strolled into hospital around 6.30pm only to find out that I had a syndrome which was linked to pre-eclampsia which meant my white blood cells had been destroyed and I could bleed to death,” she says. “The previous patient the hospital had encountered with it had died. My husband was told that the doctor was not sure if either the baby or I would make it.”
Luckily, she did make it and stayed in hospital for three weeks. Daniel stayed for four.
Sharon is passionate in her belief that clothes are very important for parents of premature babies. When babies are in intensive care they are often naked, she says, but when they get to the stage where the humidifier is taken away hospitals often lie them in a vest so they can cover them when the parents visit. “It’s not as frightening for them if they see the baby clothed,” she states. “If the parents have bought the clothes it might be the first thing they have done for their baby so it is very important.”
When the babies are in an open cot their clothes have a medical purpose, regulating the baby’s temperature and accommodating tubes. She says: “Before I had a premature baby I thought I understood what parents were going through, but you never really can until you’ve been through it yourself.”
In the last few months the Teddy & Me site has increased the information that is available to parents on having a premature baby and is developing other products, such as supports for car seats and pacifiers. There is a also a space for parents to share their stories and Sharon is keen to give them hope. For her, Teddy & Me is much more than a business and she is keen to raise awareness about premature babies on a worldwide scale. One way of doing so is through her support for World Prematurity Day which is held on 17 November.
The business has grown hugely in the last 18 months and has moved from being based in Sharon’s back bedroom to a unit on the outskirts of Kenilworth. Her husband also works for the company, which now employs four people.
Several are working mums who work flexibly around the school day. “When I was in the print industry I think I was a bit mean to women who were mums. I wish I had had the understanding I have now,” says Sharon, who is nominated for Mumpreneur Champion in the MumsClub Business Awards. “Without allowing child-friendly hours I would miss out of the fabulous skills these women have.”