Two sons made Alison want to give all kids the best start

CHARITY LAUNCH: Alison Baum, second left, at the launch of Best Beginnings' fundraising venture Spring Board with, from left, footballer Peter Crouch, actress Jenny Agutter, TV presenter Abbey Clancy and TV producer Dame Pippa Harris


BEST Beginnings founder Alison Baum believes she was fortunate to have one of the best beginnings, thanks to her family circumstances.

The charity aims to give all British children the best possible start to life.

The granddaughter of a Polish immigrant who arrived in Britain with virtually no formal education, Alison found herself, a generation later, instilled with a love of learning from a family of what she calls, "incredible academics and medics".

The roll call is certainly impressive. Her late uncle was Professor David Baum, who was president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, while her father, Professor Harold Baum, was dean of life sciences at Kings College, London.

Her Edinburgh-born mother, Glenda, nee Magrill, is a physiotherapist and campaigner against the effects of coastal erosion.

Her uncle Geoffrey Baum is a GP. Uncle Michael is a breast cancer expert and aunt Linda Kingsley a speech and language therapist.

Cousin Buzz Baum is a professor in cancer research.

Even closer to home, Alison's husband, Cheadle-born Professor Paul Gringras, specialises in paediatric neuro-disability and sleep at London's Evelina Hospital.

Alison is a master's science graduate who was very active as a student in the Association of Jewish Sixth-Formers and Union of Jewish Students.

For nearly 10 years, she produced and directed BBC science-based TV programmes like Horizon, Tomorrow's World, Trust Me I'm a Doctor and Animal Hospital.

Her brother, David, is a professor of evolutionary botany in America and her sister, Dr Mandy Baum, is a London GP.

Yet with all these family and professional advantages, Alison found herself totally overwhelmed when her two sons were born with major health problems.

Her eldest son was named after her uncle David, who died in 1999, aged only 59, of a heart attack while on a bike ride in aid of children from Bosnia and Kosovo.

Alison's David was born a few weeks early in 2001 with a cleft palate and breathing and feeding problems. He was in five hospitals in his first five weeks.

Alison said: "It was very hard. Even with the confidence we had as parents, it was still overwhelming and very challenging."

Although David, now 15, is doing extremely well in every way, going in and out of hospital has been part of his life.

His constant contact with paediatric departments inspired him, since the age of three, to set his heart on becoming a paediatrician himself.

After his birth, Alison took 10 months' maternity leave. She returned to the BBC, installing David into a BBC crèche.

Although Alison had really enjoyed working on BBC science documentaries, travelling around the world making "really complex ideas accessible", after David's birth she sought "a better work-life balance".

She was therefore seconded to work for the BBC's then-director general Greg Dyke's internal change programme.

Her experience there taught her many of the change management and communication skills she now uses in heading her charity.

Then she became pregnant with second son Josh, who was also born early with a cleft palate and was diagnosed with meningitis as a newborn.

Alison recalled: "He was very, very ill. It was terrifying, despite the fact that I had four grandparents alive.

"My Mancunian in-laws, Max and Charlotte Gringras, were very supportive, constantly coming up and down from Manchester and my parents were very involved in our lives.

"I was lucky to have very supportive siblings and an incredible friendship group, and, importantly the confidence to ask the doctors what was going on and, if necessary, to challenge them.

"What got me thinking of the idea of setting up Best Beginnings was that, although I had had a very difficult time, the thought of how much harder it would have been if I had not been so advantaged, if I had been a single mum without that support network.

"It got me thinking that there were lots of things I was able to do which could have a positive impact on children's outcomes."

Alison had become aware of the statistics on the unacceptable health equality across the UK and was really shocked to find that a baby born in Birmingham is four times more likely to die in infancy than a baby born in Bath, while a baby born in Blackpool is 13 times more likely to be born to a mum who is smoking than one in Westminster.

She said: "There are a lot of the geographical variations in the quality of care in the NHS. But the knowledge and confidence of parents also plays a crucial role.

"My aim in setting up Best Beginnings was to close the gap of inequality. It's not about background. It's about getting evidence-based information to give all children the best start."

Alison set up Best Beginnings, which is currently in its 10th anniversary year, to use her film-making, change management and collaborative skills to give mothers of different socio-economic groups across the country the advantages of the knowledge and support with which she had been blessed.

In fact, Alison reckons she owes her first experience of collaboration to her student work for UJS and AJ6.

"My collaborative and pro-active student work gave me the idea of working nationally and internationally. I did more of that at the BBC," she recalled.

"When I set up Best Beginnings, I embraced the idea of working collaboratively from the evidence. I worked with different charities who worked with parents with babies or those who had lost babies, like Royal Colleges, professional bodies and government departments.

"They have been involved in making sure that what we create meets their needs to make change.

"We create technology to be used by midwives and health visitors and other charities. I am passionate about the use of films to inform and empower and to help to create those light bulb moments of understanding."

Alison's latest project is Baby Buddy, a series of more than 200 films focusing on maternal health, using film and technology to get accurate information to women of all ages across the country.

Always abreast with new technology, Alison says: "I began with DVDs. But they have now had their day. Apps are really where it's at."

Mums all over the country can now, thanks to Best Beginnings, receive their own personalised Baby Buddy app, which takes them on a journey through pregnancy till their baby is six months old.

It mentions the mother and her partner by name, with different content if she is breastfeeding or not. Every film has to be approved by more than six Royal Colleges and professional bodies.

Best Beginnings also gives out information on prenatal and post-natal mental health.

Alison says: "The key thing is to reassure mothers that if they say they are feeling low or anxious their baby will not be taken away and that they should speak to health professionals to get the support they need."

Baby Buddy, which has received several awards, is now committed to give extra support to dads as well as mums.

Alison said: "Dads are under-supported. They can get low and anxious and need to get help. If you involve the father, there are much better outcomes for the baby. When there is that couple relationship, it gives the child the very best start."

To fund all these ambitious projects Alison has recently launched Spring Board, whose supporters include Lord and Lady Fink from Manchester, who recently hosted a fundraising event in their London home.

Alison is looking for more northerners to get involved in funding her projects. She recently received an OBE for her services to tackling child health inequalities.

She says: "It is a manifestation of my Jewishness to make a difference."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph