what’s a postpartum doula
and why do i need one?
postpartum doulas. the support all new parents need.
BY MEEMA SPADOLA PCD (DONA), CLC
(POSTPARTUM DOULA & CERTIFIED LACTATION COUNSELOR)
Over the past thirteen years, I’ve gotten used to blank looks and confused reactions when I tell people that I’m a postpartum doula. After all, even with increasing attention to the importance of the postpartum period (both in terms of physical and mental health), the unconscionable health crisis in the black community around birth and the postpartum period, and articles like this one, most people still don’t know what a postpartum doula is.
With prospective clients, I inevitably get the question: “What does a postpartum doula actually do?” And there really is no quick answer, because a postpartum doula’s job can look very different from one family to another and from day to day. Unlike a newborn care specialist (commonly known as a baby nurse, although most aren’t nurses), postpartum doulas care for the whole family, not just the newborn, and our job is to build independence, or, as we like to say, to work ourselves out of a job.
The bottom line is that providing practical and emotional support and evidence-based information for new parents helps them feel healthier, happier, better rested, and more confident and competent in navigating their new roles in what can often feel like a very foreign land. (And, yes, there are plenty of guidebooks to this foreign land, but as I point out to my clients, I’m there to help them with their baby, not the baby in the book who, all too often, doesn’t behave the way their actual baby does!)
So, of course, I can easily list the services I provide, like education about newborn development, care and sleep; feeding support, information and assistance whether nursing or bottle; support with self-care measures for birth parents; help with older siblings; meal prep; household help; and providing referrals when there’s a need outside my scope of practice.
But that list doesn’t do justice to how profound the postpartum doula’s role can be. A seasoned postpartum doula has a knack for knowing what’s needed in the moment. Do the parents need a nourishing meal or a nap to feel like they can pay attention, let alone function? Do they need the incredible sense of satisfaction and freedom that comes from learning how to safely and comfortably wear their baby in a carrier? Are they experiencing difficulty with nursing and just need to spend some time working on that? Do they need a soothing sitz bath so they can practice some self-care and work on healing their perineum? Or maybe the best thing in the moment for new parents is to see their power to soothe in holding their baby skin to skin. Maybe they need someone to listen– really listen, without judgement or jumping in to give advice– to their birth story or their (often ambivalent) feelings about life with a newborn.
The truth is that some visits are filled with activity and are all about checking items off the to do list including things like: learning to bathe baby; teaching and practicing soothing techniques; fine-tuning their latch or finding a more comfortable breastfeeding position; setting up the breast pump and offering the first bottle; organizing the nursery; assembling baby gear; getting a load of laundry or sink full of dishes clean; shepherding the family to a pediatric visit; or stashing the fridge and freezer with meals for the weeks to come– all incredibly important tasks! Other postpartum visits might not look so busy, but are just as important and productive because they leave parents feeling encouraged, empowered and optimistic. And whatever it is that I’m doing, I want my clients to feel the way one mother I worked with put it: “Every time you come, I end up feeling so much more confident.”
I think this comes from meeting each family where they are, instead of being dogmatic or embracing one particular parenting philosophy. In the same way that I teach parents how to “read” their baby and learn how to decode the different cues babies give, an experienced postpartum doula learns to read both babies and parents (and sometimes even visiting grandparents!) to know how to meet their needs and leave them feeling supported, cared for and stronger– physically and emotionally. Parents need room to experiment, learn, express doubts and frustration, and take some missteps without being judged or having a particular philosophy of parenting pushed on them.
To quote Julia Jones, the Australian doula and author of Newborn Mothers, “When a baby is born, so is a mother.” I’d extend that to anyone who is parenting a newborn baby. Whether or not you’ve given birth, if you are the parent of a newborn (or newborns), there’s nothing quite like the tumult, joy, anxiety, growth and change of the postpartum period. And like a newborn baby, a newborn parent deserves the same attention, care, warmth and sense of safety to grow and thrive. Creating that nurturing environment is exactly what a good postpartum doula does.
© Meema Spadola 2019 All Rights Reserved
Meema Spadola is a DONA (Doulas of North America) trained and certified postpartum doula (since 2006), a Certified Lactation Counselor (since 2010) and a boober lactation support provider since launch. She teaches newborn care and breastfeeding classes at Birth Day Presence. The New York Times described her as “a modern Mary Poppins: a combination friend, teacher and spirit guide…” A former documentary filmmaker, Meema enjoys working with a diverse range of families, including single, adoptive, and LGBTQ+ parents. She is the proud mother of a son born in July 2007 and lives with her family in Kensington/Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. Read more at www.meemadoula.com