More and more, our culture is becoming aware of the need to support one another in times of transition. Whether that means birth, new parenthood, choosing a college, finding a career, or even death, we are increasingly seeking out support from professionals who can lend a caring ear and sound advice. We may call them different things: college counselors, life coaches, mentors. But when it comes to birth, women and their partners are seeking out the help of doulas.
Doula is a greek word that roughly means “woman servant” or, by some translations, “woman slave.” Although I’ve never been made to feel like a slave in my work as a doula, I find the role of serving birthing and new mothers to be vitally important to their well-being, and highly rewarding for myself. The entire journey, from pregnancy through new motherhood, deserves respect. We should be honoring that journey by supporting and nourishing mothers through what is likely the most difficult and emotional transition of their lives. If a mother feels supported during birth and the postpartum period, she is more likely to have positive feelings about her experience, and has a better chance of receiving mental health help if she needs it.
There are two types of doulas: birth and postpartum. We overlap in much of our work, but we specialize in different areas.
Birth doulas are with you for the long haul.
Birth doulas provide continuous emotional, physical, and informational support to a laboring woman and her partner. Ideally, we get to know birthing people during pregnancy so that we can best advocate for them and meet their needs when the time comes to birth their baby. We join women sometime during early or active labor and stay with them until after their baby is born. During that time, we offer physical comfort measures, help with decision making, and act as emotional safe zones for our clients. Once baby is born, we stick around until everyone is settled and comfortable. We are often able to provide early assistance with breastfeeding and physical comfort measures in the immediate postpartum period.
All birth doulas practice uniquely, but most of us like to follow up with our birth clients with a home visit one or two weeks following delivery. In addition, my clients know they can text or call whenever they want after our working relationship has technically ended. I field questions about when to introduce solids, teething, potty training... Once I’ve been your doula, I’m always your doula.
Postpartum doulas mother the mother.
Postpartum doulas, on the other hand, work with women and their partners, and often other children in the family, at any point during the first year after having a baby. Just as each birth is unique, so is each person’s experience in new parenthood. Postpartum doulas provide breastfeeding or bottle feeding support, sleep counseling, baby wearing advice, and much more. They are well versed in recognizing signs of postpartum mood disorders and typically have a wealth of resources for the families with whom they work. These doulas work out a schedule with their families, sometimes doing overnights, sometimes assisting during the day, and sometimes providing a mix of both.
Postpartum doulas can also assist with light housework, meal prep, and caring for older children in the family. Often, postpartum doulas will offer specific sibling doula services in which they provide quality childcare for a family’s older children while the birthing couple is occupied with labor and delivery. Some birth doulas are also willing to provide sibling doula services.
Doulas and Mental Health
All doulas, birth and postpartum, are keenly invested in improving the lives of people having babies. We care deeply about women’s interpretations of their birth experiences and strive, to the best of our abilities, to help our clients process how things went. I always encourage my clients to write down their birth stories and to share their feelings with their care provider. At the same time, doulas know to stay within our scope of practice. If it appears as though a mama is struggling with anxiety, depression, OCD, or other perinatal or postpartum mood disorders, I will refer them to mental health professionals who are trained to address their needs better than I can.