With Babies in Waiting, Emily and Jo Bull are determined to change the perception of pregnancy to make expectant mothers aware giving birth is something to celebrate, not fear
"When I first meet people, they think ‘What, you can actually enjoy giving birth?’ which is such a shock to them,” explains Emily Bull, the co-founder of Babies in Waiting, the pregnancy care franchise. Being fearful is easily done though – have you ever seen a film or TV show portray a calm and relaxed birth? The dad is usually clueless and the mum is generally having a meltdown. Of course, this needn’t be the case, which is something Bull and her mother Jo are eagerly trying to make clear. “Sometimes we revert back to our subconscious conditioning of what we’ve seen in the media about birth, which is quite traumatic, like what we’ve seen on Eastenders, which is just entertainment,” says Bull. “There’s going to be shock and horror [on those programmes] and actually it doesn’t have to be like that.”
Before going into business with her mother though, she was arguably as dubious as some of the mums-to-be she speaks with today. While her mother had worked in pregnancy care over her career as a doula while also championing natural remedies as a homeopath, Bull’s work life started as an English teacher at a secondary school. “I was working in a comprehensive high school locally and then I discovered I was pregnant,” she says. “I had a mum who’s a hypnobirthing practitioner and she opened my eyes to the idea or prospect of a really calm, beautiful birth, which at the time I was a little bit sceptical of. I was thinking ‘Really? For all of those people you’ve been telling me have had such great experiences, did that really work?’ But I thought ‘No, actually, I want to find out more about this.’”
And find out more she did. Even though her mother’s work had shaped her outlook as a child growing up, she still wanted to do her own research on the birthing front. “I think I’ve always been around a more holistic outlook to things,” she says. “As a family, we’ve always questioned medicines and looked at different ways of treating things and complementary things to support conventional medicines. That’s definitely had an impact on my line of thinking.”
Still, with many of her mum’s clients reporting amazing births, Bull proceeded to learn the hypnobirthing technique despite her doubts. “It wasn’t until I learnt this stuff for myself and sat on the course and had that first birth that I thought ‘Wow, this does [work],’” she laughs, adding it was “an amazing birthing experience” with a son born at home through a water birth. “Weighing 10lb 6oz, he was quite a large baby,” Bull recalls. “There was no pain relief or intervention, it wasn’t dramatic, it was a very calm, relaxed birth.” From that point, Bull has continued to adopt the method to the extent that the three children she’s had since were all born at home. The birth of her daughter was actually filmed and can be found on YouTube, where it’s attracted over 620,000 views.
Entering motherhood, especially with this newfound birthing knowledge, opened Bull’s eyes to a new opportunity within her reach. “I was at a crossroads in my life where I wanted to be able to teach people this stuff,” she says. “If you can give birth calmly and confidently without any intervention, just by using the power of your mind and education, what else can you do with it?” Excited by the concept of embracing new visualisation techniques to support other women, Bull didn’t want to return to life as a schoolteacher. “I felt a real sense of passion that I wanted to develop my skills, so I trained to be a clinical hypnotherapist and hypnobirthing practitioner.” Through hypnotherapy, she learnt how to support people with goal achievement, motivation, overcoming fears and phobias, although it was applying it to birthing that really compelled her. And this paved the way for Bull to join forces with her mum to put the family in family business.
With Babies in Waiting, the pair have created an educational pregnancy course of their own design. “It’s a very practical, common sense and comprehensive antenatal course,” Bull details of the hypnobirthing teachings. “We write birth plans and help birth partners with how they can best support their partners but the real unique part of the course is the focus on the mindset as well.” She reasons that the female body is designed to grow and nurture a baby, which means mums-to-be are generally able to go about their daily lives – assuming there aren’t any special medical circumstances – but things become confused when the baby is due to arrive. “When it comes to labour, society fears birth,” Bull claims. “There’s lots of drama and horror stories surrounding it. So women are almost bracing themselves going into this event which should be a really normal, natural, amazing experience in their lives [because] it’s their baby’s first birthday.” Based on that, the focus for the duo is to dispel myths and negativity to make way for confidence and belief.
Indeed, there’s an almost sporting approach to the big day with the support of Babies in Waiting in terms of where that visualisation element is concerned. It’s not uncommon to hear analogies about playing football or running a marathon on the course – you wouldn’t have a sportsperson participate in one or the other without training, would you? And that’s what Bull is trying to foster with the business – mental encouragement and performance in the same way a coach would get their athletes to succeed. “I could tell someone consciously ‘Just relax and have a good birth’ but it wouldn’t go past the surface of where I need it to go to,” says Bull. “Whereas with hypnosis you can bypass what’s called the conscious critical faculty and you can get into the powerhouse, which is their subconscious mind, and you can really make massive changes to their belief system about their body, self-esteem and confidence.”
In addition to hypnobirthing, the duo also hosts pregnancy relaxation classes. While hypnobirthing focuses on getting the expectant mother and their birthing partner up to speed ahead of the labour, pregnancy relaxation is something of a safe space for mums in the making to unwind. “The pregnancy relaxation sessions are open to anyone at any stage of their pregnancy and they’re an opportunity to have that continuity of a place where they can come and offload any concerns, worries or fears, any anxieties, stresses or negative thinking,” says Bull.
With a guided relaxation that includes creature comforts like blankets and pillows alongside eye masks and soothing music, each week has a specific theme for the stage of pregnancy. “If a woman is feeling endorphins and oxytocin regularly then that has a huge impact on the baby’s wellbeing,” she details. Pointing to the modern always-on lifestyles many lead today, from long working days and emails to phones and social media, Bull encourages mums to have some alone time. “It’s so important she takes time out to relax,” she continues. “To think ‘Right, this is the place where I come and, even if I can only do one hour of this class a week, that’s the time I can let go and focus on the baby.’”
It was several years after opening their doors in 2009 that Bull and her mother came to the conclusion they were onto a winner and franchising was thrown into the mix. “The majority of the people we’ve met and been teaching over the past ten years or so have had mind-blowing birthing experiences,” says Bull. “And it was in 2016 that we realised ‘Actually, we can franchise this business we’ve got’ and that’s when we got quite excited about that whole prospect.”
For the years leading up to 2016, it was just the mother and daughter team that were teaching in their town of Billericay, Essex. Although franchising would be a transition from a team of two with the emergence of a franchise network, they had many of the tools required at their disposal already. “We’d created our own course, our own scripts, had our own music composed, everything was trademarked and protected and we thought ‘You know what, we can roll this out,’” Bull says matter of factly. Another burst of encouragement came from the customers themselves, many of whom had begun saying how much they’d like to be part of Babies in Waiting. “So that gave us the inspiration to think ‘Well actually, why don’t we look into training people to teach this? Why don’t we expand our team?’” she adds. With enquiries rolling in from places they physically couldn’t operate in alone, their minds were made up.
With no real experience of franchising before entering the sector first-hand, female-centric franchise body Encouraging Women Into Franchising (EWIF) was a big helping hand to get the Babies in Waiting founders up to speed. “We got a lot of support with EWIF,” recalls Bull. “I spoke to some really lovely ladies, like Anne-Marie, the franchisor from diddi dance. We’ve also got quite a close relationship with Sounds Right Phonics, so we’ve spoken to EWIF and other people who were doing it at the same time and was pretty [much] guided through the process.”
Having received a crash course in franchising, Bull and her mother were ready for action. In terms of their own method of communication with interested parties, upon receiving an enquiry, they speak a few times before meeting and interviewing potential franchisees. Those who make it through to training are then given time with Bull herself for hypnotherapy, access to a midwife and practice runs teaching the sessions. Noting that the franchise incorporates continuous professional development, franchisees needn’t worry they’ll be left alone once committing either. “We have ongoing meetings with them, we observe their classes – that’s the whole benefit of a franchise isn’t it?” opines Bull. Detailing just how accessible they are at HQ, she says: “We’re in constant communication with them, so if they’ve got any questions, need additional support or just want to clarify something, they can reach us immediately. And it’s worked really well.”
Bull has received a series of positive reviews about the growing network, which has 14 franchises currently, and it’s seen mums want to stay in contact with their teachers to maintain a relationship even after the course is complete. “We received a bunch of flowers from a woman whose baby was having her first birthday and it was like ‘Wow, you know what, that’s amazing,’” Bull says, painting a vivid picture of just how happy some customers are. “Her baby’s first birthday and she sent us flowers to say thank you. So it’s more than a business. It’s pretty much a way of life for us, it’s what we love, it’s a passion. So we branch that out and spread that to the franchisees. We see them as an extension of our family basically.” It’s unsurprising given many of the initial franchisees were already familiar with the brand, having taken part in the courses themselves.
In terms of challenges along the way, it doesn’t appear Babies in Waiting has experienced any – although Bull confesses she’s probably not the best person to ask about downsides. “I’m probably programmed to always see the positive in every situation,” she laughs. “If I saw a challenge, I’d think ‘What have I learnt from it? How can I flip it?’ If there was something a bit trickier or harder, I’d see it as a learning process. I think we were just really lucky.” Part of the reason things have been so smooth is down to the business running on its own steam for the better part of ten years. And in addition to hypnotherapy knowledge, Bull has also studied things like babywearing, breastfeeding and so on, combined with her own knowledge of being a mother. “For us, [franchising] was the perfect fit of what works well and what doesn’t work so well from our own business,” Bull says. “We’re always growing and learning and developing and changing. But it’s quite an exciting process really.”
One of the developments was introducing the mother and baby club part of the business to the franchise opportunities at Babies in Waiting where it joined hypnobirthing and pregnancy relaxation. These take the shape of groups where new mums with babies up to three months old can meet others in their shoes and find new friends. “We notice there generally isn’t a lot of support out there in the world for a postnatal mum,” says Bull. “They can sometimes feel a bit isolated and vulnerable and don’t often have someone they can ask questions.”
She notes that other cultures can be learnt from as they’ll really support new mums, whether that’s family and friends taking food around, helping with chores or otherwise, while dads overseas will receive more time off to bond with their new baby and support their partners than they do in the UK. “Here you only get two weeks [of paternity leave] off [but you] have to get up and then get on with it and that’s just so wrong,” Bull stresses. “This is the foundation of our society: pregnancy, birth, new parenthood. These are going to be the future adults in our society making decisions. If we get this time right, if we respect and nurture and support a family, they’re going to have less problems, stress and issues in the future.”
And with the future in mind, Babies in Waiting is looking to expand from the Essex region and go nationwide with its offering. “The first few people we trained had done our course,” says Bull. Like herself, they were professional mums who became converted through “really good birth experiences”. “Obviously that’s now changing because we’ve got a [franchisee] in Ireland – and she wasn’t our client,” laughs Bull of the logistical notion of hopping between the Emerald Isle and Essex once a week for the pregnancy group. “Our lady in Ireland is a midwife, she’s a nurse and has six children, so she’s very, very qualified for the role,” she continues, chuckling.
In terms of other markets, the Midlands and north of England are appealing areas for the franchise. “Now it’s really our goal to look at Manchester, we want to go to Birmingham and Sheffield, we want to try to get further afield,” says Bull. Offering more perspective, straight from the heart, she adds: “That love of wanting to talk about the mind, birth and babies, that’s the key really. And that’s what shines through our team, which is this really is something they love. And when you do something you love that’s what makes a success.”
Of course, while the franchisees are of real importance, so too is her mother. “Obviously I’ve learnt about birth from her and she learnt about birth from me and the critical process of birthing,” Bull laughs. “She’s had four natural births herself and she’s got six grandchildren, I’ve had four natural births, so we’re literally embodying what we’re telling people about.” Adding how supportive they are of one another is what she thinks adds for a great working relationship. “The only reason we’ve been able to make Babies in Waiting such a success is because of that relationship, I believe. So we’re really excited about the future and how we’re going to develop it further.”