A midwife who has helped mums give birth in the frozen Canadian Arctic and the parched heat of the Australian Outback is leading the way in looking after expectant women in Wales.
Glasgow-born Sheila Brown worked in Canada’s Arctic Circle and in the stifling heat of Australia’s Red Centre before moving to North Wales and now trains the next generation of midwives for Bangor University.
The University’s team have just retained their Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative accreditation for their midwifery programme, the only programme with this endorsement of excellence in Wales, which pays special attention to the importance of breast-feeding.
Sheila, whose own mum was a midwife educator, emigrated to Canada at 16 with her family and qualified there as a nurse before working for six months in the North West Territories during a winter when temperatures plunged to a frigid -40C.
She then moved to Australia where she met her husband and qualified as a midwife before working in Alice Springs where many of the mums she helped were First Nationers living in 40-degree heat in villages and camps in the desert.
Sheila, who lives in Wrexham and is Lead Midwife for Education at Bangor University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences there, said: “The BFI award is for supporting infant feeding and relationship-building between mother and baby and is something I am passionate about.
“This award is an endorsement of the quality of the teaching we do here as part of the School of Medical and Health Sciences.
“I have been involved with the BFI initiative as a midwife, and now as an educator to teach student midwives to provide care and support with infant feeding to promote, protect and support breastfeeding.
“We do this through educating women, people and families about the benefits of breastfeeding including reducing childhood illness and illness in later life. There are also health benefits for mums too.
“There is a wealth of clear research evidence that shows the importance of human milk for human babies.
“It is really important that evidence-based information and support are provided to enable women who choose to do so to breastfeed or where babies are born pre-term or are in special care, that mums are supported to express and provide their milk for their babies. In some cases, this can be life-saving.”
Bangor University has a highly-regarded midwifery programme, including Welsh language tuition, with over 100 students currently on the three-year course.
Each year they receive up to 400 applications for the 30 to 40 places on the course which is a direct entry programme open to those without nursing qualifications.
Sharon Breward MBE, Infant Feeding Co-ordinator for Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board said: “I am absolutely delighted to congratulate the Bangor University Midwifery Programme on it’s successful re-accreditation with the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative.
“As the only accredited programme in Wales, it really is the jewel in our crown.
“The commitment of the education team to ensuring our future midwives have an excellent grounding in infant feeding care is the bedrock of the infant feeding support we provide to mothers and families in North Wales maternity services.”
Sheila added: “Our student midwives include those straight from school and mature students and the high demand is evidence of the quality of the teaching here.”
She is also a volunteer advocate for the motorcycle Milk Run – her husband, Tim, is one of the riders – part of Blood Bikes Wales, which transports vital mother’s milk to be pasteurised and stored for the special care baby units across North Wales.
She said: “They’re best known for transporting vital blood supplies which they can do quickly because they can get through traffic more quickly on a bike but they’re used for mother’s milk too.
“As part of my volunteer work I give talks to organisations such as Women’s Institutes about Blood Bikes and also the importance of human milk for human babies.
“To me the work of Blood Bikes riders is vital. They are supermen and women who transport human milk for tiny humans in Wales. They are literally lifesavers.
“Milk banks get the milk mainly from mums who over-produce milk, who express milk and have lots to spare and from women who have sadly lost their babies and want to help others.
“It is mainly used in the Special Care Baby Units and for mums who are helped by the charity Mummy Star, who are diagnosed with cancer while they are pregnant.
“Sadly there isn’t a Milk Bank in North Wales – milk from North Wales is stored at the Countess of Chester Hospital – and I think there is more specialised support and funding to encourage mums to choose to feed themselves in England and especially in Scotland where they are seeing improved breast-feeding rates following more funding for support services.”