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What is a doula?

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

One of the questions I get asked frequently is, what actually is a doula? A doula is a support person for a person/couple due to have a baby. They are not a midwife or doctor but should have training to provide the best support and advice they can. There are many different types of doulas, and some offer a range of services whereas others specialise in one area. For example, birthing doulas support the family during pregnancy and birth, whereas a postnatal/postpartum doula will support during pregnancy and after the birth but will not be present during labour.

I am going to specifically be talking about postnatal doulas in this article as that is the area I specialise in, but this is a great article about the benefits of a birth doula

Women (more so in the past, nowadays it can be any sex) have been supporting other women through birth and postnatally for centuries. The term “doula” wasn’t used until 1969 when Dana Raphael wrote an anthropological study and used the term to describe a female caregiver during labour and childbirth whose function was often associated with successful breastfeeding (in Raphael’s words, ‘mothering the mother’). Klaus and Kendall also looked at the role of support during labour in 1986 and then using the term doula later in 1992 when they set up DONA. The doula: an essential ingredient of childbirth rediscovered - PubMed ( .

I first learnt about doulas when I was training at The Norland college to become a nanny. It was a career that I could do when I became qualified. It was described to me as similar to a maternity nurse but more about looking after the family as a whole rather than just the baby.

I should also probably explain what a maternity nurse is, as I know they are not as common in New Zealand as compared to the UK. A maternity nurse moves in with the family and usually works 6 days and nights straight each week for about 6 – 8 weeks straight after a baby is born. Unlike a maternity nurse a doula is there to support the parents in adjusting to their new role as parents. In America and the UK doulas are well known and used frequently. Society has changed so much that there is a greater need as our villages and support networks become wider spread. Previously it was more common to live in the same area as our parents and siblings whereas nowadays our families may be spread across the country or countries! People are also working far more and not retiring until much later in life so cannot always take time out to support the new baby being welcomed into the world.

The support offered can vary according to what the parents’ needs are. For example, I can help with both practical and emotional support. This can include cooking healthy meals or snacks, doing light house work, folding laundry, caring for baby while you catch up on some sleep, offering advice around new-born care, support and advice on breastfeeding, advice and support with self-care and couple care, someone to talk through your feelings and emotions, referral to beneficial organisations…. When I describe what I do I will often say, “think of me like your Mum, best-friend, and your biggest cheerleader”. I am not a guest in your home but someone you can be your whole self around. I don’t care what you look like if you’ve not brushed your hair or if you are in a bad mood. I am there to support you through it all and sometimes it doesn’t look pretty and that is completely okay.

Postnatal doulas have been found to help decrease the likelihood of postnatal depression and better breastfeeding outcomes. Breastfeeding is such a fundamental part of the fourth trimester, and we are told that it is natural and just expect for it to work. Unfortunately for a lot of women it is something that can be challenging. Women are often under prepared for their breastfeeding journey which is why I offer a prenatal breastfeeding session which can really help. The more support in those early days and weeks that you have with breastfeeding the more likely you are to continue. If breastfeeding doesn’t happen as planned it can be really upsetting and exhausting which can of course play on any postnatal depression. Having someone to talk through what you are feeling can often help. It makes things that seem huge more manageable and strategies and ideas on how to make things a little easier can often be found.

So how long do you use a postnatal doula?

This really varies from family to family. It is often looked at any time in the first 3 months of baby’s life, but I find a lot of families need/or want support for much longer than that. Some families will just want a couple of sessions when they settle in at home because they may have other support around and it’s just a little extra. Other families who don’t have any family support near by may want much more support to adjust to the new normal. A postnatal doulas role is not to look after baby when parents are not in the home as they are not qualified to do so, but I have the added benefit of being a qualified nanny so I can look after baby so that parents can spend time with each other, or they can start getting back into the swing of life.

Often you won’t know how much support you are going to need or want until your baby arrives, but by engaging a doula you know that the support is there and with most doulas you will be able to extend the support you need to some degree.

Choosing a doula.

Choosing a doula is about finding the right fit for you. Experience and qualifications are definitely important. Just because you have had the training doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you are doing.

This also is true that just because they have a family doesn’t mean they are experts on baby care etc. However, it’s also about how you connect with your doula. Do you have the same values and attitudes, do they make you feel comfortable etc. It has a lot to do with feelings and emotions and needs to be mutual. Don’t feel bad about ringing around and finding the right fit for you.

I trained as a nanny because I love babies and children and have found it to be such a rewarding career. I was always interested in maternity nursing and working as a postnatal doula, but because I met my husband and started a family of my own it wasn’t possible to take either of those roles on in the UK (postnatal doulas and maternity nurses at that time were often expected to move into the family’s home for 6 weeks). As I had my own children and went through my own experiences, I really wanted to pursue a career more focused as a doula. I find it so rewarding and love watching family’s blossom. I feel very grateful that I have a job that I love doing and look forward to. It’s such a special time and it’s such an honour being invited in to join the journey.

Should you hire a doula? Of course I’m going to say yes! Having that extra support is so beneficial, just having someone to ask questions and talk through concerns can be hugely beneficial, personally I don’t think you have anything to lose! Last thing, an interesting fact is a group of doulas is called a cuddle, which I think sums up what we do perfectly. Call or email me to arrange a chat and to see if we are a good fit for each other.

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