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What is a doula?

What’s it like having a doula by your side during pregnancy and labour? Kicki Hansard shares all

Author Kicki Hansard
Categories   Second Trimester

The Edit

"When I introduce myself as a doula (doo-lah), I often get asked what I make as a jeweller or what kind of a dealer I am!"

So many people have still not heard of doulas, despite the many articles about the many benefits we bring. The statistics and data show having a doula with you during the birth of your baby and afterwards have a huge positive impact, from shorter labours and fewer unwanted interventions to higher rates of breastfeeding and lower postnatal depression.

Now you might be wondering what a doula is and this brings a smile to my face as I think about the weekend I spent recently at The Baby Show in Olympia London. We were speaking to a couple about doulas, and we were asked if a doula was a pill and, to be fair, if you haven’t heard about us or what we do, you might be forgiven for mistaking a person for a pill - so let me start from the beginning.

A doula is not a newly invented profession as such, and many women would have been working as doulas not knowing that was the official name for the work they were doing. All ancient societies had a local wise woman who would support families as their babies were being born.

The name was originally coined in a book written by Dana Raphael, who used this word to describe a person that offers support after the birth of a baby. Paediatricians John Kennell and Marshall Klaus stumbled on the amazing benefits of doulas when they were researching the early relationship between mothers and babies. They discovered that having the support of someone who is not part of the medical team, the family, or a woman’s social network during childbirth makes the birth shorter, less pain medication is used, and a more positive memory of the event remains for everyone.

There are two main types of doulas - birth doulas and postnatal doulas – and many carry out both roles. A birth doula is someone that supports you and your partner (if you have one), during the birth of your baby. Some postnatal doulas starts when your partner goes back to work, but they can start just days after you’ve come back from the hospital. A postnatal doula is non-judgemental and will provide practical support, suggestions and information for you and your new life with a newborn.

So, now you know more about what a doula is and what they do, I’d like to share the experience Jacque had when she hired me to be her birth doula.

"The births of my first two babies had been far from ideal. The first was an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic, and the second a long painful demoralising labour ending in an epidural and forceps delivery. In both cases I was disappointed with the level of support from the midwives – and yet I didn’t feel this was a role my poor long-suffering husband could fulfil. So, third time around, I decided to hire professional help in the shape of a doula.

Those of us having perinatal care divided between different caregivers, which is most of us, will understand the need for better continuity. You and your doula will get to know each other during the months before the birth and they will come to you at home in the early stages of labour and stay until the fat lady sings. Their familiarity with you and your wishes for the birth will help them to help you stick up for yourself if under pressure from medical staff to undergo unwelcome interventions.

Kicki was helpful from the outset. We had three meetings towards the end of my pregnancy when we discussed my birth plan in detail, practised positions, breathing, massage and other techniques. We talked about natural remedies, meditation and relaxation techniques, and how to handle medical staff and the hospital environment. In between visits, Kicki phoned and emailed regularly to see how I was feeling and to pass on information she had got for me.

My labour began during the night. Everything started off OK – I managed fine on my own while my husband took a shower and I pottered around finishing off a few little jobs. Then my toddler woke and refused to go back to sleep and as the intensity of the contractions increased my husband was preoccupied with her and packing the last things in my labour bag. We called Kicki and when she arrived the contractions were beginning to get on top of me.

The relief when Kicki came was palpable. She gave me a big hug and immediately the pain level dropped. I felt I had a comrade in arms and some undivided attention and company at last. Kicki’s encouragement, praise and empathy helped me relax and get back on top of the contractions. She instinctively knew exactly how to touch me without irritating. Her messages of reassurance were not ones I would have accepted or believed coming from my husband. In any case, he was too busy with other stuff to spend much time at my side.

After a horrendous car journey to the hospital in rush hour it made a huge difference to how I was coping to see Kicki again at the hospital. Once in the delivery suite there was no time for anything much. I was shocked and overjoyed to be told I had already reached full dilation and the baby was born within the hour. As I screamed her out, Kicki gave me the reassurance that it was OK to make such a huge hullabaloo!

So finally, I got the complete birth experience with no drugs that I had always wanted. I couldn’t have done it without my doula. I was so elated and proud of myself as so in love with my beautiful new daughter. Amazing, fantastic, totally fulfilling – without doubt the best day of my life."

I have to say, it was an honour to be there to support Jacque and I’m so lucky to see beautiful births like this most of the time.

The most important thing when hiring a doula is that you have good rapport and get on with that person. We would suggest you speak to two or three doulas and then meet with them in person. You can then decide which one feels like someone you would want to have with you for the birth of your baby and/or in the early postnatal period. The doulas on The Doula Directory work with contracts which clearly set out the services they’re providing. They have a basic DBS check and most also have Public Liability Insurance in place. However, it’s always a good idea to check DBS and insurance documentation before signing contracts.

There are many reasons why you should hire a doula. We all know the saying “it takes a village to raise a child“ and that’s absolutely true! If we can learn anything from the civilisations that have gone before us, it’s that we are not meant to give birth on our own or without the support and guidance from someone that understands the process.

It can take a lot of pressure off the other birthing partner to know they are not going to be the only one there, having to make decisions and the doula can provide reassurance that everything is normal.

Author Kicki Hansard

Kicki Hansard is the CEO of The Doula Association, an author and educator and has worked as a birth and postnatal doula for 20 years, supporting hundreds of couples and training over 1,000 doulas. Her first book, “The Secrets of Birth: What every woman should know about birth and motherhood” was awarded the 2017 Janey Loves Platinum Gold Award and she’s a chapter contributor to the book “The Roar Behind the Silence”. Her latest book, “Supporting Survivors of Sexual Abuse Through Pregnancy and Childbirth: A Guide for Midwives, Doulas and Other Healthcare Professionals” is published by Singing Dragon.

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