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First Sure Starts achieve UNICEF Baby Friendly Gold Award

16th April 2021

Shankill Sure Start, Smile Sure Start and Glenbrook Sure Start, funded by the Department of Education and managed through the Health and Social Care Board, are the first Sure Starts in Northern Ireland to be awarded the prestigious Baby Friendly Initiative Gold Award by UNICEF.

The Baby Friendly Initiative, set up by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, is a global programme which provides a practical and effective way for health services to improve the care provided for all mothers and babies.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) has been supporting the Sure Starts with maintaining Baby Friendly Initiative standards and achieving this award.

Janet Calvert, Regional Breastfeeding Lead for the PHA, said: “We have been working with UNICEF UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative in support of the Breastfeeding Strategy to increase breastfeeding rates and improve information and support for mothers throughout Northern Ireland.

“Breastfeeding can help protect babies against a wide range of serious illnesses including gastroenteritis and respiratory infections in infancy as well as asthma, childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. We also know that breastfeeding can reduce the mother’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as being rewarding for the mum.

“However a mother chooses to feed her baby, she will be supported to form a strong loving relationship with them. We are not complacent as we recognise that we have much more to do, nevertheless this award recognises the real improvements that have been made through the hard work and commitment.”

The three Sure Starts were highly commended by UNICEF UK for the quality of the evidence submitted and the thorough way in which the necessary processes to embed and further develop care related to the Baby Friendly standards have been planned and implemented.

The project co-ordinators from the three Sure Start projects commented: “We are delighted to have received the Gold Award, particularly at this time with the additional challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has placed on our services.

“During COVID-19 we quickly introduced remote-based services for families including antenatal and postnatal contacts, virtual support groups and support via social media.

“Despite some venues closing, Glenbrook, Smile, and Shankill Sure Start continued to provide services in line with the current restrictions, for instance socially distanced doorstep visits, walks in the parks, one-to-one centre visits and small groups. This is a testament to the excellent collaborative working across the city having resulted in a broad understanding of what is required to support babies, their mothers and families.”

The work of Sure Start and Baby Friendly Initiative is particularly important as breastfeeding rates are low in Northern Ireland, and many mothers stop breastfeeding before they intend to. At birth 61% of babies are breastfed, but this figure reduces to 47% at time of discharge from hospital, 29% at six weeks and 17% at six months. 1

Roisin McCooey, Regional Lead for Sure Start at the Health and Social Care Board, said: “Sure Start benefits from a multidisciplinary team including early years, family support and allied health professionals, with the skills and competencies required to deliver services to parents. The success of Sure Start is the story of collaboration and partnership working.”

Aidan Dawson, Director Specialist Hospitals, Women’s Health & Mental Health at Belfast Trust said, “I am delighted that Glenbrook, Shankill and Smile Surestarts have been recognised for the great work they do by the award of the prestigious Unicef UK Gold Standard.  I have been privileged to support and be involved with the teams on their journey to date as their Baby Friendly Guardian and I am committed to supporting them to maintain the Baby Friendly Standards.”

For more information, advice and breastfeeding support, visit the Public Health Agency’s breastfeeding website at