If Laura Milbank had a bucket list when she was a teenager, making clothes for premature babies would not have been on it.
Back then, she was more focused on getting through a communications degree at the University of Waikato and figuring out what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I eventually decided on a career in sales and advertising,” says Laura, 34. That soon led to roles at Trade Me, Stuff and NZME.
Having ticked off other life goals such as marriage to Yael Milbank, 44, an IT professional, and buying a lifestyle property in Waimauku, north of Auckland, Laura fell pregnant with their first child in early 2017. And while doctors assured her it was a textbook pregnancy, Laura admits “it didn’t feel quite right”.
“I had a terribly sore lower back and a nagging suspicion that something was wrong,” she recalls.
Laura’s suspicions proved correct when, at 26 weeks, she went into labour. “We rushed to Auckland City Hospital, where doctors gave me medication to stop the labour, as well as steroids to help develop the baby’s lungs in case he came early.”
A week later, it happened again, and after four days in hospital – 12 weeks before his due date – Laura’s son Boston was born. Boston weighed a tiny 1.2kg and was immediately whisked away to an incubator.
“It was horrible seeing all the tubes and cords coming out of him,” says Laura. “What was even harder was not being able to take him home with us.”
Boston stayed in Auckland City Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for just over 11 weeks. But it was during his fourth week that Laura chanced upon her new career.
“Boston was moved from being in an incubator to an open cot, which meant he was finally able to wear clothes,” tells Laura. “That’s a huge milestone for prem babies because they’ve been lying in an incubator in nappies that are way too big, and finally parents get a chance to dress them, which other parents have been doing since day one.”
But it also presented a couple of speed-humps: Laura couldn’t find attractive, organic all-in-ones soft enough for her son’s especially delicate skin, or clothing that would allow access to the numerous cords and the breathing apparatus attached to him.
“It made me really sad. I thought, ‘How hard can it be to make something beautiful and appropriate for prem babies?’ I knew I could do better.”
Although Laura shelved the concept while she raised Boston, a year later, when she was casting around for “something just for me”, she dusted off the idea of creating functional premature baby clothing that would also give back to the neonatal community who’d been so helpful to her whānau.
She spent almost two years researching designs and fabrics, and talking to neonatal nurses and other parents about the best approach. Laura eventually came up with three products lines – swaddles, onesies and bodysuits made from 100 percent organic cotton, with slits to keep medical cords out of the way, as well as fold-over booties that allow one foot to stay warm while the other is accessible for monitoring.
“All the clothing is kimono-style to avoid over-the-head dressing, which gets complicated for babies in incubators.”
Laura hit pay dirt when a friend of a friend turned out to be an entrepreneur who connected small businesses with overseas manufacturers.
“That was a game changer, because she found me a small, ethically operated factory in India to make the products.”
Laura designs the patterns, picks the fabric and has them dyed to her specifications. “I want them to provide a bit of cheer for parents at probably one of the most challenging times of their lives,” she says.
That determination to beat the odds also led Laura to name her company Little and Fierce after a Shakespeare quote she’d seen scrawled on a bed at the NICU ward: “Though she be but little, she is fierce”.
The company was set to launch in March last year, but then Covid knocked the world sideways, pushing the launch out to the end of June. Now, Little and Fierce products are sold online by NICU, as well as on Laura’s website, and one dollar from every outfit sold goes to the New Zealand Neonatal Trust.
“A few months after launching, I sent a few samples to the UK’s biggest online premature baby store and they loved the design and quality, so they now stock us, which is a huge coup.”
Life today is about raising four-year-old Boston and two-year-old daughter Frankie – who, ironically, was born two weeks late – and providing comfort for premature babies and their parents.
“Getting feedback from parents who tell me how thrilled they are to find appropriate clothing for their prem babies makes it all worthwhile. That’s my why.”