It’s World Doula Week, and we at SheKnows make no secret of the fact that we effing love doulas. And what’s not to love? They’re basically magical (and yet medically educated) sorceresses who manage to fill the roles of supportive birthing partner, teacher, therapist, and sometimes even birth-yoga-teacher all at once. And they’re proven to improve birth experiences — both in health and mental health categories. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that “in addition to regular nursing care, continuous one-to-one emotional support is associated with improved outcomes for women in labor,” and research from DONA international shows that doula support contributes to everything from shorter labors to decreased C-section rates and fewer epidurals.
For these and so many other reasons, doulas are (rightfully) on the rise: DONA International reports there are six times more doulas working births today than there were 20 years ago. Even in today’s fraught and frightening mid-pandemic climate, doulas who have been barred from NYC hospital delivery rooms are turning to virtual methods of connection so they can support birthing parents even from afar.
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But perhaps one of the most valuable assets a doula will bring to your birth is experience, plain and simple. After all, they’ve witnessed this process dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times already. They’ve seen some shit, and they know some shit. They also know what’s worth worrying about or planning for pre-birth — and what just plain isn’t.
Which is why, in honor of World Doula Week, we reached out to the doulas themselves to ask: What’s the #1 thing you wish birthing parents knew before they head to the hospital (or birth center, or home birthing area) to deliver? Here’s what they said.
You have options — and rights.
“I wish that, whether parents hire a doula or not, they are comfortable with advocacy tools,” doula and women’s health expert Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow, tells SheKnows. “It is essential to understand your rights as a birthing person. Informed consent is a tool that can help you advocate for yourself during delivery.”
What’s informed consent? It’s “the legal doctrine that requires that medical doctors provide a patient with all relevant information about a proposed procedure or treatment prior to obtaining the consent of the patient to carry out the procedure or treatment,” Thomas explains. Which means that no procedure should take place without you a) being informed and b) consenting to that procedure. “Cooperation and coercion is not consent,” Thomas adds. “So just because you let something happen doesn’t mean that you consented to it. Whenever possible, ALWAYS take time to reflect on your options before making a decision, even if it’s just for a moment… Ask to be left alone to discuss and weigh the options. The birth team (partner and doula) can help advocate and ask questions about proposed treatments so you have as much information as you’d need to make an informed choice about your care.”
The emphasis on birthing parents’ rights is echoed by certified polarity practitioner and DONA-certified birth doula Jill Silberstein of Here Lil’ Birdie. “You have options,” Silberstein tells SheKnows, “but you have to know them. Please educate yourself. You are your best advocate. Please take a childbirth ed class by a birth collective — not run by the hospital. Books are good too. The more info you know, the more empowered you are, which leads to less fear of the unknown. And fear is the dealbreaker in labor and birth.”
There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
Silberstein also urges birth parents and partners to ask, ask, and ask again. “As parents, you are always part of the conversation, and especially when it’s time to make decisions. Ask questions: What is that? Why are you suggesting that? Is that necessary right now? What’s the alternative? If we agree to this, what happens next? What are my limitations?” This, she explains, will best set you up for Goal #1 of knowing your options.
You don’t need to choose one technique.
With birth, as with pregnancy/parenting/any aspect of this journey, there is no one-size-fits all. Nor is there a miracle cure for labor pains (well, except maybe an epidural, which is a great choice too). “Pain coping techniques — try them all,” advises Silberstein. “A position, breathing technique, or movement that worked early in labor might not work as well in active labor and vice versa. Just keep trying them. Be open and take it one contraction at a time.”
Partners have power, too.
Silberstein adds that partners should absolutely not feel powerless in the birth process; there is plenty they can do to help. Like what, you ask? “Encouraging words go a long way,” she says. “Gentle whispers of encouragement in the mama’s ear — you’re doing it, I’m so proud of you, you’re strong, you’re brave, you can do this, I’m right here.”
Sometimes, just give up and breathe.
“When shit hits the fan, just surrender (literally imagine your body melting) and focus on your breath,” says Silberstein. What’s her favorite breathing technique to get through transition or active labor? “I like a four-count breath,” she says. “Inhale 1-2-3-4 and exhale 1-2-3-4. That will get you across the finish line.”
You should always feel free to dance (or sing or yell or cry).
Silberstein’s final advice is possibly her best: “Have a dance party! Literally. I don’t care if your ass is hanging out of your gown, you’re wearing those dorky grippy socks and your IV pole is now a prop — dance,” she insists. “Put on Beyoncé, Florence and the Machine, WHATEVER, and just move. It will loosen you up, elevate your mood, make you smile, boost endorphins and maybe even move the baby into the perfect place to progress labor!”
Really? Really. Silberstein says she has “multiple success stories” from this tip, so it’s certainly worth a shot.
Birth will challenge you.
“Everyone knows that the physical sensations of birth are very uncomfortable and intense, but birth can challenge us in many different ways,” DONA-certified birth doula and postpartum doula Rebecca McKeever tells SheKnows. (Full disclosure: McKeever is the gem of a doula who helped welcome my kid into the world four years ago!)
“There is no such thing as an easy birth,” McKeever adds. “Whether it’s a labor that lasts three hours, three days, or a planned cesarean, birth challenges us to the root of our being because that’s what being a mother does. We are challenged to love and to give of ourselves so deeply, we even give our mind, body, and spirit to this journey. There is no need to be afraid of an induction or embarrassed to tell your friends ‘it was fast’ — all birth is challenging, and all birth can be beautiful.”
You can’t really prepare.
As much as all you type-A preggos out there might hate to hear this: A birth plan is really more of a list of hopes. Birth is messy and surprising and all sorts of things can change and not go according to plan. But what’s the hardest thing of all to plan for? “The one thing that no amount of prepping could ever ready you for is the love explosion that will happen in your heart, your life, and your family once your little baby arrives,” says McKeever. “Expect to be overwhelmed by emotions! And that’s okay.”
When it’s “over,” it’s far from over.
“It’s okay if in a few days, weeks, or months you still have not ‘fully processed’ your birth,” advises McKeever. “Birth is something so magical and mysterious that we could spend our whole lives contemplating it and still not fully get it. That’s part of why our parents still call us their own little ‘babies,’ and talk about how ‘just yesterday’ we were their sweet little ones.”
Sorry, but it’s true. While there are so many pregnancy books and birth techniques and seemingly step-by-step birthing instructions out there, you’d think you just pop out a baby and run through the finish line to collect your medal and go home. But alas: Birth is just the beginning, and it only gets messier from here. But the good part is it also gets a lot more fun.
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