Those who know me probably won’t be surprised to learn that I forwent the parties, camping trips, and out-of-town extravaganzas this Memorial Day weekend and instead opted to do doula-y stuffs. A consultation, postpartum visit, & placenta processing later, my weekend felt very productive. The highlight of the 3 preceding days was a first for me, though. I’ve had a heart for volunteering since my first checkers game with a senior citizen in middle school, and try to give back a little of my time each week if possible. Therefore, I was really happy when my schedule aligned with a volunteer need by DASC (Doulas Association of Southern California).
So, I put on a dress, packed up some handouts & business cards, and headed out bright and early Saturday morning to woman a booth at the La Leche League Conference in Newport Beach, CA. I figured I’d be getting the word out about what DASC does and how it relates to the breastfeeding community. Little did I know that I’d be spending most of the day luring passersby in with “stress boobs” & sharing about what doulas are, what we do, and how families who want to breastfeed can benefit by hiring doulas. You see, while I know that most of America (and the greater world) haven’t yet heard of doulas and that we’re still a relatively low-profile group of professionals, I wasn’t prepared for the idea that other birth workers and baby-related professionals wouldn’t have a clear understanding of our role.
Most doulas in my community have an extensive resource list of professionals to refer our clients to. This list contains the contact info for pediatricians, lactation consultants, midwives, babywearing gurus, placenta encapsulation specialists, birthing centers and a host of agencies and businesses that cater specifically to pregnant and growing families. We know our people, and that’s partially why clients hire us--to sort through the crazy number of providers that parents have to choose from in order to find good matches for their families.
To prove this fact, I can name three providers on my list that I saw or spoke to on Saturday. Firstly, Dr. Kenneth Akey, a pediatrician Mary & I adore for his natural approach to healthy lifestyles and parenting techniques. Next, I saw Michelle Frias-Rodriguez, who is a babywearing enthusiast/extraordinaire. Finally, I had the pleasure of speaking with a doula-turned-midwife in Orange County, Susan Scott Gill, LM, CPM. Sue & her midwife partner, Karen Pecora, LM, are well known for their VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) & water births.
My point here is that I knew a ton of faces and names that I came upon that morning. And for those I didn’t know individually, I knew of the organization or agency they were with (La Leche League leaders, WIC peer counselors, etc.). So, I just assumed that even though many I encountered didn’t know me individually, they would know what a doula is in general terms. But that wasn't the case at all. Of the dozens of people I had the pleasure of interacting with, I’d estimate that 40-50% didn’t know what a doula was or does. And of those that did know what doulas do, many weren’t really aware of how to actually find a doula if they came across someone who did asked about it.
This saddened me immensely; though I’m more than happy to explain what I do, how doulas work, and how to go about searching for a doula, I kept thinking about all the families who seek out support in the pre- and post-natal periods, whether from books, online articles, videos, advice from friends and family, or in-person lactation education classes. I wondered to myself how many thousands (millions?) of families don't meet their goals because the plan of action they had prenatally didn’t pan out once their babies were born. How many mothers invited lactation consultants into their homes for 1-2 hour visits only to find that they couldn’t effectively put the advice given into practice because life got in the way? How many partners were at a loss as to how to help mothers breastfeed because they had never seen anyone demonstrate supporting a breastfeeding session? For most families who haven’t grown up around breastfeeding, it is an awkward, slow-going, and patience-trying endeavor in the beginning (and sometimes throughout the whole breastfeeding relationship with a child). This is where doulas fit in perfectly!
*SO. MUCH. BABYWEARING. Huntington Beach based doula,
Alicia Garrett and her happy son modeled for me!*
Doulas at births are able to calm a new mother’s fears when she thinks she doesn’t have any milk; even though she keeps hearing this funny word “colostrum” all over the place, she may never see a drop of liquid come from her body in the first day. The labor/birth doula’s role is fluid and ever-changing depending on the family, but they generally have an arsenal of soothing words & research, a calm presence, and a helping hand to push pillows underneath babies and readjust beds so that a new mother has the best possible chance of being successful right from the start. Oh, and there’s also the whole idea that women who have gentler, less traumatic birth experiences are more likely to breastfeed than others. Well, that’s the doula’s whole goal in her work: help women have the birthing experiences they want, and when that’s not possible, help them adjust to the changes so they’re not fearful, regretful, resentful, etc.
In the postpartum period, a doula is the Swiss army knife of breastfeeding aids. Sure, many parents prepare with the BreastFriend/Boppy pillow purchase, they stock up on the organic nipple balms, and they have a book or two on hand. But they don’t always have someone cheering them on or offering helpful suggestions or pointing them to the right resources for further assistance. Though it’s true that not all postpartum doulas are specially trained in lactation issues (growing numbers are), even the doula who knows nothing about breastfeeding on a technical basis is trained to figure out what families need to cope in the early days with an infant. If a father is exhausted and frustrated because his 4th attempt to swaddle his crying baby has resulted in the little one snaking his way out of the configuration yet again, the doula’s job is to comfort him and offer some guidance to cut down on the overall frustration. Or, if she saw the mother finally get her baby latched on after a half hour of struggling only to realize she forgot her water and snack in the kitchen, she’d bring it to her so the mother didn’t have to budge.
These short-term, seemingly insignificant actions all matter more to the breastfeeding relationship than the outsider can sometimes distinguish. After all, research to bolster the argument that support people matter when it comes to breastfeeding has been available for at least a decade. Governmental agencies even acknowledge this fact, as seen in The CDC Guide to Strategies to Support Breastfeeding Mothers & Babies, where multiple studies in support of continuing help for breastfeeding mothers were quoted (e.g. “A 2005 Cochrane review of support for breastfeeding mothers found that professional support had a significant beneficial effect on exclusive breastfeeding in the first few months after an infant was born…”).
Image by In A Guerilla Costume
All of this to say, those who have hired doulas see their obvious ability to shape the breastfeeding experience of a new mother if their services are utilized. It seems to me that all pediatricians, childbirth educators, OB/GYNs, midwives, lactation consultants, postpartum nurses, and anyone who works with mothers who want to breastfeed should know of this amazing resource for their patients/clients. So, I’m setting out on a mission this year to help this lofty goal of mine become reality and I hope other doulas do too: I am going to reach out to at least one provider in my area per week to help spread the word about doula work, especially as it relates to breastfeeding. I'm going to go a step further than introducing myself by actually make sure each person I speak to knows how to find a doula. That way, when a client is struggling (or even before a client is struggling!), providers know how to find resources or have referrals in their pockets.
If our societal rates of breastfeeding are ever going to be elevated to the levels that healthcare agencies across the globe recommend, mothers and families need the hands-on, consistent support from healthcare providers and birth workers alike. They can't just be expected to figure it all out on their own. Very few women in America can actually do that.
I call all doulas to be advocates (and thank the ones that already are!) for your passion, your livelihood, and families in your community. I know so many of us want to see change so badly, and I believe our society capable of it. But people need to know you to utilize your help. So get out there-volunteer, do meet and greets, or simple make a call or send an email to maternal and infant healthcare providers in your city or county so that families know that assistance is available!
If you'd like to join me in this endeavor, use #DoulaAdvocate on social media and give @yourbirthteam a shout out! Happy Doula-ing! Happy Breastfeeding!
And a HUGE thank you to DASC & LLL for letting me be a part of your world. And a special thank you for having vegetarian food options! Go LLL!