Doula: Mothering the mother

As a certified birth and postpartum doula, my work day often starts in the middle of the night with a phone call asking me to come to an excited, or sometimes anxious, pregnant woman’s home. When I tell people I am a doula, the most common response is, “A what?” After explaining that a doula offers support to women throughout their pregnancy, labour and birth and once they are home with a new baby, I still get puzzled looks and am asked, “Are you a midwife?”

The confusion is understandable, as the use of a doula hasn’t been particularly widespread in New Zealand, but the role is enjoying a revival worldwide thanks to a group of passionate, professionally trained women. The word doula is an ancient Greek word referring to a woman who personally serves another woman.

Women helping women in labour is an ancient and widespread practise. In most cultures, a labouring woman was traditionally supported by other women in her family. As childbirth moved from home to the hospital and because we live in such a transient population where women are often not nearby their families, women today often don’t have the same support as they used to. Studies consistently show that having an experienced female support person during labour, other than a midwife, can have a positive impact on the woman’s experience. Doulas work alongside, not instead of, the midwife or doctor and are a valuable member of the team, supporting and encouraging the woman and her partner.

Women who come from a variety of backgrounds can benefit from using a doula’s services – those who are in a relationship, just as much as those who are alone, find value in having someone tend to their emotional and physical needs.

Most birth doulas meet with the pregnant woman three to four times before the baby is due, and are available by phone to answer any questions the parent-to-be may have. During this time, they develop a relationship where the mother and her partner feel free to ask questions, express their fears and concerns, and are encouraged to take an active role in developing a birth plan.

A birth doula respects the mother’s decisions and honours the choices she makes for the way she would like to birth her baby. A doula is constantly present during labour – from the time the mother chooses for the doula to join her until usually a couple of hours after baby’s birth. The doula’s primary and unique role is to encourage the birthing woman by being her constant companion, helping the labouring woman and her partner to feel less pressured and take a more active role during their labour.

A doula’s skills include birth plan preparation, pain relief techniques, labour massage, acupressure, breastfeeding support and much more. A birth doula is flexible and knows how to navigate birth’s unexpected twists and turns. If unforeseen circumstances should arise, a birth doula remains calm, keeping the parents and other support people informed on what is happening, and helping them adapt to changing circumstances.

Doulas do not provide any type of medical care. They are, however, knowledgeable in the process of labour and birth and can therefore help their clients gain a better understanding of what is happening during their pregnancy or birth.

The birth of a baby represents a profound and permanent life change for the parents and other family members. Every family can benefit from non-judgmental support, education, companionship and encouragement offered by a postpartum doula during the early weeks at home. They assist with newborn care, family adjustment, meal preparation and light household tidying, and can offer evidence-based information on infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from birth, infant soothing and coping skills for new parents, making appropriate referrals when necessary.

While New Zealand enjoys the benefits of a world-class midwifery service, there is still a place for a doula in both the birthing environment and the home of the new family. The doula’s work and nurturing presence complements the care that labouring women receive from their medical practitioners, and that postpartum women receive from their families. To ensure the service provided by doulas is of a high standard, women wanting to choose a doula should ensure they choose one with a recognised Certification.

By Carolyn Tranter*

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BUMP & baby is New Zealand’s only magazine for pregnancy and early babyhood. Our team of mums and mums-to-be understand what it’s like to be pregnant in this connected age, and that’s why BUMP & Baby online is geared toward what pregnant women and new mums really want to know.

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