A Do-What?

Engaging the help of doulas through
birth and postpartum

Story by Meghan Cornelison

As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Traditionally, it also takes a village (or at least parts of a village) to birth a child. For centuries, mothers faced childbirth surrounded by other knowledgeable women from their community who offered experienced support through labor, delivery and the early postpartum weeks. In today’s society, not all women have that sort of “village” available to them, so some look to professionals to help fill that role.

Doulas (derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “women who serve”) provide continuous non-medical support before and during childbirth or through some of the “fourth trimester,” the 12 weeks following delivery, according to Doulas of North America (DONA) International. “The role of the doula has been around since ancient times,” says Brenna Reynolds of Forget-Me-Not Doulas in Anchorage. “But we have only recently in the western world figured out how valuable it is to have that role specified and defined for a mother.”

Doulas fall into two categories of birth and postpartum support providers. Birth doulas are more frequently used in Alaska than postpartum, according to Stormy Antonovich, co-leader of the Alaska Birth Network, but both can benefit mothers and families, providing support and comfort at a time they are especially needed.

Birth doulas

Birth doulas offer a friendly, reassuring presence for families through an intense, and sometimes anxious, experience. “A doula is there to support the mother and family through all the emotional and physical aspects of the birth, without doing anything medical,” says Farrah Collver, a DONA-certified doula in Soldotna.

Doulas may help suggest more comfortable positions or movements throughout labor or be a sounding board for any questions or concerns the family has. They also help “take care of all the little background details, like getting food for both the mom and her partner, so that the family doesn’t have to worry about it,” says Krystle Gard of Birthing Beautiful Doula Services in Anchorage.

A doula will support you no matter what birth option you choose. “Having a doula doesn’t mean you will have any one type of experience,” says Collver. However, clinical studies suggest that doula-attended births, wherever they occur, do have a commonality: they tend to result in more positive outcomes overall, including shorter labors with fewer interventions, according to DONA International.

Doulas are not medical providers, and they may not legally perform deliveries, explains Gard. While doulas can make suggestions for ways to increase comfort and help laboring moms feel more relaxed, they do not interfere with the medical decisions of care providers or speak directly for their clients. “We are hired specifically by the family,” says Collver. “We will help the mom advocate for what she wants, but we would never speak for her.”

Postpartum doulas

Postpartum doulas visit families on an agreed-upon basis beginning soon after the birth. Stella Lyn, a birth and postpartum doula in Palmer, describes the postpartum period as the “fourth trimester,” in which moms and babies need time to rest and bond together in a “bubble,” without having to attend to too many other tasks. “It’s a really tentative and tender time,” she says. “I like to think of postpartum doulas as helping protect that ‘bubble,’ so families can have that time together.”

These women can help new parents sift through any questions or concerns they have about their new baby, breastfeeding or the mom’s healing process, referring to appropriate professionals whenever necessary. They can also “just provide for the physical needs of mom and baby so they can stay in that ‘bubble’ together,” says Lyn. “Maybe that’s making a meal, getting some groceries or doing some laundry.”

Particularly in communities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, where many families are relocated from out of state, postpartum doulas can help fill in for far-away families and friends. Something as simple as having someone make your lunch and let you take a shower can be a real relief to a new mom, and if that same person can also suggest a more comfortable way to hold your nursing baby, even better.

As with their birth counterparts, postpartum doulas provide proven benefits. According to DONA International, moms served by postpartum doulas have higher self confidence, more success at breastfeeding, lower rates of postpartum depression and fewer incidents of abuse.

While hiring a doula might not be for everyone, having a professional on your side whose sole job is to improve your comfort and confidence can make a huge difference.