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Empowerment Through Support: A Doula's Perspective

My first introduction to a doula was when I was looking for a sibling education class for my older two children. I was pregnant with our third baby and wanted to prepare my older kiddos for the new arrival. My search led me to Northwest PA Doulas and the owner, Chrissy Dougan. She not only taught an amazing sibling class in my own home, but she also introduced me to the supportive world of doulas!

I wanted to sit down and write this blog post for expecting moms who aren't aware of what doulas offer and provide, and for those moms who are on the fence about investing in one. If I had to do it all over again, I would absolutely seek out the support of a doula, especially for those postpartum months! I wrote out a list of questions and sent them to Chrissy, and she was wonderful enough to supply me with some great, informational answers!

A big sister smiles while holding the baby basinette in an Erie, PA recovery room.

What is a doula?

A birth doula provides physical, emotional, and informational support to families preparing to welcome a baby. That’s the boring definition. I like to say we are like a wedding planner/coordinator. Wedding planners know all about weddings, but they aren’t the ones who are getting married. You could totally get married without one, but they make the experience easier and more enjoyable!

We’re here to make sure you know all your options for your birth, without making the choices for you. Then on your big day, we put it all into motion and work with your partner to make sure you feel safe, heard, respected, comforted, and loved!

I also like the analogy of a birth doula being like a sports coach. We make a game plan together and then are your biggest cheerleader, right by your side every step of the way on your baby’s birthday. It’s truly like having a pregnancy/birth BFF that knows what you can expect and how to comfort you and advocate for your wishes.

A postpartum doula supports your family in your home environment after baby is born. Postpartum doulas make coming home from the hospital and recovering from birth easier. Our goal each time we visit you is that you get a shower, a meal, and a nap before we leave. Some postpartum doulas will even spend the night to help with the baby so you can get more sleep.

We jump in wherever we are needed to help families navigate the early weeks with baby while minimizing feelings of loneliness and overwhelm. We help take care of big siblings and help with household chores like doing dishes or folding laundry. We know all about baby care from swaddling to bathing to diapering. We are the experts in normal newborn behavior and can point you in the direction of local resources should you need services such as a lactation consultant or pelvic floor therapist.

A mother holds her newborn baby in her recovery room at St. Vincent hospital in Erie, PA.

What is the typical scope of a doula’s services before, during, and after birth?

A birth doulas’ support begins during pregnancy. They check in with you in between prenatal appointments with your medical provider so you know what to expect and what questions to ask. They also provide visits in your home during the pregnancy to help you prepare for birth. Most clients use their visits with their doula to go over their birth preferences, learn more about their options, and talk through any anxieties or

fears that are creeping in (from past births, or due to being a first-time parent).

We also practice different labor positions and do breathing exercises. We show your partner how to do a double hip squeeze or apply counterpressure in a way that feels comfortable to you (so their first time isn’t during your labor). We'll talk about how to know you're in labor and how you'll know it's time to head to the hospital. We’ll also walk you through what to expect when you arrive at the hospital.

During the birth doulas provide:

Emotional Support. Since birth is hormonally driven, it is an emotional time. Doulas are equipped to support you through happiness, sadness, anger, and self-doubt. Many doulas are specifically trained in trauma informed care.

Physical Support. Massage, helping with positioning, using pressure points, helping you to the bathroom, etc.

Educational Support. Many doulas are also Childbirth Educators. Doulas are experts in what is “normal.” We are happy to bridge connections with your providers and nurse to help you understand the childbirth process. Having a birth doula is like having your childbirth educator right in the delivery room with you!

Partner Support. We help get your partner involved in the process by showing them where to massage, encouraging them to help with labor tasks, or inspiring a bonding moment. Partner support also looks like: giving them a break leg holding duties during pushing, or reminding them to grab some lunch and take good care of themselves throughout the process.

Immediately following the birth, most doulas stay for about two hours to make sure your postpartum period gets off to a good start. We can help with practical tasks and guide you through all the “brand new parent moments” like feeding, burping, swaddling, and diapering baby for the first time.

Finally, your birth doula will provide an in-home postpartum visit to wrap up your time together. This is an opportunity to process your birth experience and get additional postpartum and newborn tips. We make sure your physical recovery is going well and that you are feeling well supported emotionally.

A family holds their newborn in their nursery during a lifestyle newborn session with Ashley Stack Photography.

How can a doula support me and my partner during labor and delivery?

A question we often hear is, “Will my partner feel awkward or left out if we have a doula?” We do our best to make sure that does not happen by developing a relationship with them as well. They are present at all visits and we include them in the discussion. We support them as they support you, and want them to feel super confident in their role as the main support person. We give them tips and tricks before birth and in the moment. It’s truly a team effort. We want you to feel more bonded than ever when your baby is finally in your arms. Read more about why partners love doulas here.

A mother and father hold their newborn baby at St. Vincent hospital in Erie, PA during a Fresh 48 photo shoot

What kind of training and certifications should I look for in a doula?

I've found that most people who are interested in becoming a professionally trained doula, have already been a doula their whole life. Doulas spend their lives caring for others, showing support without judgment, and always striving to make those around them feel loved, accepted, and heard.

There are dozens of training organizations out there, and certification is not required. Certification doesn’t mean as much as it does in some other professions, because there are no standardized curriculums, doulas don’t carry a license, and they aren’t recognized by any governing body. Requiring certification of a non-medical professional creates a lot of barriers for both people wanting to become doulas, and people needing doula support. Doulas are not clinicians and certification does not make a doula “legitimate.”

With that being said, most doulas decide to complete a training with an organization that hosts an in-person workshop that teaches hands on comfort measures, stages of labor, advocacy skills, etc. Additional studying, reading, and test taking is then done on their own time. You want to choose your doula based on your compatibility. They will see you in your most vulnerable moments. Most doulas offer complimentary consultations. You will know when you meet the perfect doula for you because you will feel at ease with them!

A newborn baby lays in a hospital basinette in Erie, PA

Can I have a doula if I’m planning a home birth, birth center birth, or hospital birth?

You sure can! Doulas support all types of birth—from unmedicated home births to epidural hospital births to cesareans. We have complete confidence in our clients as they make the decisions that are best for them. Your goals are our goals. You are capable of choosing the path that feels best to you. We aren’t included in the support person count at local hospitals. You are permitted to have 2 support people plus a doula.

How is a doula different from a midwife?

In short, doulas provide non-medical care while midwives are medical professionals. What does that look like?

A graphic explains the differences between a doula and a midwife.

What is your favorite memory/experience as a doula?

I love to pay attention to the first thing that comes out of people’s mouths when their baby is placed on their chest. There is a wide variety of reactions ranging from shock to tears to pure joy. My all-time favorite quote: “Wow, that was fun!”

Birth doesn’t have to be a scary experience. I’ve seen plenty of people laugh, dance, and kiss their way through labor. Of course it won’t be like that for everyone, but the way movies portray birth is very inaccurate. A well supported birth is an incredible thing to witness and participate in. It’s a birthday party!

What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to expecting families?

You are in the driver’s seat. You are the best one to make the decisions for your family. You’re going to tell your birth story so many times. What kind of story do you want to tell? My guess is you want your story to be one filled with empowerment, support, and options. You want to feel cared for, heard, and seen. Find the people that help you feel that way and allow them to support you. Your story matters.

A mother holds her newborn baby during a Fresh 48 photo shoot with Erie, PA newborn photographer Ashley Stack Photography

I would love to know, in the comments, if you've used a doula in the past, or are using their services right now! As a mom of 3, who struggled through each of my postpartum periods, I realize now how incredibly important support is; and I truly wish that I had sought out a doula for more than just a sibling education class! Let me know if you have any other questions for Chrissy! You can find her at Northwest PA Doulas.

If you're interested in having your pregnancy documented, check out my maternity page. I also offer Fresh 48 sessions in your hospital recovery room, lifestyle newborn sessions in the comfort of your home, as well as studio portrait sessions for your growing family. See more information about all of your newborn portrait options here.

Until next time, take care and smile pretty!


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