Most mothers-to-be in Dubai will have come across the name Cecile de Scally at some point during their pregnancy.
The South African midwife has helped thousands of couples get to grips with becoming parents since she moved to the Middle East almost 20 years ago. Now, she’s laying the foundations of a lasting legacy in the hope that parents, especially those away from their own families, will always have somewhere to turn.
“Every woman needs her mum. Here, your mum can come for two or three weeks, but she can’t generally come for longer – it’s inevitable she will leave,” she says. “We ask our mothers the stupid questions, but if they’re not here? Who do we ask? A lot of my work is about the stupid questions being answered.”
Finally deciding to make her business official, De Scally has founded Baby Senses in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, which is hosting its official launch today. It’s a sort of midwifery clinic/maternal and parental education centre, offering classes, private midwife appointments, drop-in clinics and social meetings.
For De Scally, who moved to Dubai in 1997 from South Africa to work as a midwife at the American Hospital, Baby Senses is about creating something that will outlive her once she leaves the UAE. “I remember the first head nurse saying: ‘Some days you will love Dubai, some days you will hate it.’ Well, I’ve loved it. I’ve grown so much more here than I would have if I’d stayed in South Africa.”
In 2004, she was part of a team that set up the city’s first maternity home-visit service. She continued working with the hospital until 2007, when she set out on her own, relying on her reputation and word of mouth to keep her working.
She worked privately with thousands of couples, helping them prepare themselves and their homes for their new arrivals. She was always on the other end of the phone, often getting calls at all hours of the day and night from mums or dads wanting last-minute advice or second opinions, even as their labour began.
“If I’ve seen an average of 20 ladies a month; that’s 240 ladies a year – it’s a lot of women in nearly 18 years.”
One of those ladies was Ila Kharbush, the co-founder of Baby Senses. She gave birth to her first child Zayn 18 months ago and relied on De Scally’s help to assist her and her husband Imad through the process. “We came across Cecile when we were looking for assistance when we had our first child. I was 20 weeks pregnant and didn’t feel prepared at all. Even when I was in labour, we called her.
“It was helpful knowing all the questions to ask the hospital and at my appointments.”
Kharbush is now pregnant with her second child, a girl, and is still using De Scally’s services.
Every Tuesday morning, Baby Senses hosts an informal weigh-in for new parents. Hosted by De Scally, it’s an opportunity for mums to ask the “stupid questions” about nappies, feeding, dummies, sleeping, bowel movements or whatever else is bothering them. It’s also a chance for them to socialise and make new friends.
Fiona Fuller is a British mother to three-month-old twins Henry and Thomas, who were born premature. She attends the Tuesday morning sessions.
“I heard about Cecile when I was looking for antenatal classes. When we met her, we both just felt we could relate to her really easily.”
The hardest thing about being pregnant in the UAE, Fuller says, is not knowing where to go for information, but informal meetings often provide a lot of the answers.
“Talking to other mums here does help – everyone is in the same boat. I find that people have friends here but not family, so they are more open to share their experiences in some way.”
There are two things De Scally is particularly passionate about; breastfeeding and prenatal education. The former is one area in which she is determined to make a difference. In some other developed countries, new mothers and fathers will receive home visits from government health workers in the first few days after leaving the hospital. They are able to help spot and fix any problems with breastfeeding before they get so bad that parents give up.
“Once you get breastfeeding right, it is so easy,” she says. “It’s about catching women before they get the sore, cracked breasts and infections, so they don’t get put off. Prenatally, you need to find that person who is going to support you and you must get early support.
“Go see them within the first 48 hours, and see them regularly. Don’t wait until the child has a problem.”
As well as breastfeeding issues, there are other support services and information parents can access without trekking to the doctor’s office. The weekly weigh-ins, advice about neck strength, tummy time, flat heads and nutrition are all important in the early days, but often parents feel they miss out because they don’t want to take their child to see a physician unless there’s a problem.
“My vision is to have a place where mothers and fathers can come where they are given sound, practical advice on their pregnancies, feeding, sleeping, everything. The advice isn’t biased and they aren’t under pressure to do something they don’t want to do.”
Annemarie Aagaard, from Denmark, sought help at Baby Senses when she struggled to breastfeed her daughter Elli, who is 4 weeks old.
“You can see midwives in clinics, but it’s not a nice environment,” she says. “I would’ve given up breastfeeding in the beginning if I hadn’t come for help. It is very encouraging and supportive. I’ve been texting Cecile at 11pm saying: ‘She won’t eat and she should eat.’ Sometimes you just need to know that you’re not doing anything wrong and other people go through the same things.”
As Baby Senses grows, De Scally and Kharbush hope to employ more midwives to take on some of the workload and look at hosting other informal meetings, including some just for dads.
De Scally estimates that only 35 per cent of women manage to access all the right prenatal education, be it in classes or one-on-one sessions with midwives. The advice the remaining women receive is predominantly from doctors and of a medical nature only.
“They sometimes think ignorance is bliss,” she says, “but that’s why caesarean-section rates are going up and all the intervention, parents don’t have the knowledge to question or understand.”
Aga Lababedi, 30, took antenatal classes at a hospital, but has sought help from Baby Senses since the birth of her first daughter Mia two months ago.
She was advised to visit De Scally by her doctor after experiencing problems breastfeeding, but like so many others, had already come across the midwife’s name when searching online for resources.
“I was struggling with breast feeding; my flow was too strong and she was choking, and Cecile helped us sort it out,” she says.
Lababedi, originally from Poland, has been coming to the Tuesday morning weigh-ins for the past two weeks and has signed up for a one-on-one help session on sleep.
“It’s great just to come here and be able to hear other mums talking and hear that other babies cry, too. You can’t just go to a park or a playground here – it’s just nannies. This is a great environment to get advice and know you’re not the only one going through things.”
• Prices start from Dh250 per session. For more information, visit www.babysenses.me.
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