If you’ve never heard of a postpartum doula before – you’re not alone!
Despite now being a postpartum doula myself, I didn’t know they even existed until after the birth of my second child. Heck, I only found out about birth doulas (thanks to my wedding celebrant’s Instagram story) right before my first child was born in 2018.
What is ‘postpartum’?
You may have heard the phrases “postpartum period” and “postnatal period”, often used to describe these early weeks after birth. The World Health organization explains that postpartum refers to anything related to the mother during this period, while postnatal refers to things related to the baby.
The postpartum period is usually conceptualised (particularly in a medical context) as roughly the first six weeks/ forty days after birth. You may have also heard the term “the fourth trimester”, which spans twelve weeks (like a trimester of pregnancy) after birth. The fourth trimester is based on a more contemporary understanding of an extended post-birth transition (physically and emotionally) to a new life for mother and baby.
It is now being widely accepted that the postpartum period continues for much longer than these popular timeframes. As an example, the perinatal period (which is considered conception to twelve-months postpartum) is used for diagnosis of postpartum depression – which can be diagnosed as beginning any time up to twelve months after birth. Postpartum is also a significant time in the life of a birthing person, because not only has she birthed a baby, but she is also reborn with a new identity as a “mother”. Much like an adolescent, full of hormones and questions about their identity, goes through puberty – a mother experiences a phenomenon called ‘matresence’ where equally important transformations occur in the months (and years) after becoming a mother. These are some of many reasons I personally offer my postpartum doula services up to 12- months postpartum.
What is a doula?
A ‘doula’ refers to a trained non-medical professional who assists birthing families in a variety of ways during pregnancy, birth and postpartum. If you’re anything like me, when you heard the word “doula” the first time you probably raised an eyebrow thinking it sounded like a bizarre medical condition or exotic deli meat.
In fact, anthropologist and feminist Dana Raphael actually coined the modern day term “Doula” in 1969, which she stated meant “to mother the mother”. This occurred during Raphael’s research on the function of breastfeeding support people (and associated global birthing support traditions) when an elderly Greek woman told Raphael that the support she was referring to “was the job of a ‘doula’”.
The term “doula” itself is not without its critics however, given ancient Greek origins of the word translate to mean “female slave (to a childbearing woman)” or “woman who serves” – which have quite different connotations to Raphael’s intended new-age meaning of the word. The Baby Project’s Coburn Dukehart explains the current meaning of the word;
“Today, “doula” refers to a professional trained to provide emotional, physical and informational support to women throughout their pregnancy, birth and the early postpartum period.”
I would add here that my definition definitely includes provision of these services for women AND their partners and/ or support people.
But what do postpartum doulas actually do?
A postpartum doula supports a birthing person (and their care team eg. partners/ other support people) by providing physical, emotional and informational resources to prepare for, and while in, the postpartum period. Aspects of this support can be done in-home or online. My support services as a postpartum doula include:
- A postpartum planning workshop with families in pregnancy to help you best set yourself up for success
- Doing errands for or with you (groceries, etc.)
- Attending appointments with you
- Meal preparation in-home
- Gentle postpartum yoga/ relaxation massage
- Tidying in-home
- Holding baby while you meet your own needs
- Managing demands of older siblings (if applicable)
- Birth debriefing
- Emotional support/company
- Baby feeding/ settling support
Why invest in a postpartum doula?
According to Healthline, having a postpartum doula as part of your postpartum support network benefits you by improving confidence in your own parenting abilities/ instincts and:
Increasing your chances of successful breastfeeding
This is important if you plan to breastfeed, as the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) reports that in Australia, 96% of women initiate breastfeeding but less than half will be exclusively breastfeeding at three months postpartum.
Decreasing many prominent risk factors associated with postpartum mental health issues
This is important as Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) reports that postpartum anxiety and/or depression are currently experienced by one in five Australian Mothers and one in ten Australian Fathers.
Ultimately the benefits of the practical, emotional and informational help, as well as the social connection provided by a postpartum doula, make for increased chances of a positive postpartum experience for new parents and their babies.
Gemma Smith is a Postpartum Doula based in Brisbane, Australia. Gemma is also a mother of two under three, partner of one over 32, former HR professional, recovering perfectionist and lover of study. Gemma’s qualifications include; Master of Social Work, Bachelor of Creative Arts, Diploma of Yoga Teaching, Diploma of Business Management and Postpartum Professional certification.