Hold up, what is a doula?

by Ashley Jardine

Emma is doing hip squeezes for a birthing person in a birthing pool
Doula. Doo-la. Do-la-la (a moniker a friend once generously gifted me). You might be familiar with the word but chances are you might not know what a doula actually does. Whenever I tell people I’m a doula, I dread the question that follows because distilling what a doula does into a 30-second elevator pitch is near impossible. “Wait!” I yell, “I haven’t even got to informed consent and cervical exams!” 
The Power of Language 

The word doula originates from the Greek language and was coined to mean “servant woman” or “slave”. Merriam-Webster today defines a doula as “a person trained to provide advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and just after child birth.” Let’s muddle on that for a moment. Servant woman. Slave. Mother. Harmful. Traumatic. Gendered. Brood is a doula agency and online education platform for families and caregivers rooted in inclusivity, anti-oppression, and anti-racism, and we interchangeably use the terms doula, birthworker, and care worker. 

Doula is doing. Doula is being. Doula is supporting. So, what does a doula do? Well, sometimes it looks like everything and nothing. Sometimes, it’s a text in the middle of the night and sometimes it’s holding a hand in the darkest of times. We wipe away blood, sweat, and tears, and massage in comfort, ease, and self-belief. 

What Does a Birth Doula Do? 

The birth doula’s defining act is of course birth: long births; precipitous births; c-births; unmedicated births; medicated births; births that follow a plan; births that most definitely do not. By the time your baby decides today is a good day for a birthday, you’ll have met with your birth doula and (most likely) have been in touch with them throughout your pregnancy. Don’t let the name fool you—prenatal education and alleviating pregnancy concerns is as much part of the birth doula’s role as hip squeezes and brow wiping. This is why we recommend engaging with a birth doula as early in your pregnancy as you can. 

Birth doulas are not necessarily medically trained but have taken specialised doula trainings. Many doulas come from medical backgrounds like nursing – and many doulas often become midwives – but doulas do not provide any medical support to clients. They don’t take blood pressure readings or listen to the baby’s heartbeat; they don’t prescribe pain relief or other medications; they don’t support medically with the way in which your baby leaves your body. Instead, they offer continuous support throughout the birthing process; uphold your birth preferences; support you in making informed decisions that feel right for you; bring sips of water to your mouth, pressing hands to your lower back, hips, and thighs; gatekeep your sacred birthing space. 

Birth doulas support home births, hospital births, birth centre births, and anywhere else you might birth your baby. They work with all care providers (midwives/ OBs/ family doctors) to provide wrap-around support that wouldn’t exist without them—one study shows that doula-assisted pregnant people are four times less likely to experience a baby with low birth weight, two times less likely to experience complications at births involving themselves or their baby, and significantly more likely to have a positive nursing and feeding experience.

What Does a Postpartum Doula Do? 

Another birthworker once likened birth to a wedding and postpartum, the marriage to that wedding. That’s to say, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and drama that surrounds birth without really considering how life will look after the fact. One of the most beautiful parts of birth – the emergence of a parent – is at odds with that way treat we birthing folks as soon as the baby is born – by abandoning them. Postpartum doulas, please stand up. 

Like a birth doula, it’s great to be in touch with your postpartum doula before your baby is born. This means you have lots of time to think about the days, weeks, and months that follow your birth and all the ways in which you might prepare for them. Your birth doula may also be your postpartum doula but they don’t have to be—it’s ok to need different things in different moments. Depending on your birth experience, your postpartum doula might join you in the hours after your birth or a day or two after your birth. They might pick up your placenta and drop off broth. They might text you wildly all night, answering questions like, “omg, how do I poop after that???” and “how many pairs of mesh undies can I steal from the hospital?”

Emma is sitting on a big L shaped couch with a baby sleep on their chest wrapped in a baby wrap. The sun is shining on Emma and they are looking to their right at a dog sleeping on the couch beside them

Postpartum support can look like nourishing, comforting, and holding. It can look like six hours of baby snuggles while a parent(s) rest. It can look like feeding adults while offering tips and tricks on feeding the baby. It might be supporting folks who have experienced miscarriage, loss, or abortion—people who experience postpartum on a different (and even less supported) plane. 

 

Who Can Have a Doula? 

A question I do like answering because it has one easy answer: everyone! Everyone is deserving of doula support. Folks often wonder if they can have a doula if they are birthing at a hospital (yes), are an adoptive family (yes), are having a scheduled c-section (yes), have other support people (yes, yes, yes). There is no hierarchy in birth – everyone’s experience presents in different forms – and every experience deserves to be revered and held. 

Everyone is deserving of support. 
Everyone is deserving of culturally-safe, gender-affirming, anti-racist support in a way that’s accessible for them—something we’re working on. 

Written By Ashley Jardine

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We work and live on the unceded and occupied territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations. Since time immemorial, the original peoples of these lands have cared for their families and communities. We are committed to honouring their teachings, legacy and their sovereignty.

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