The surprising reasons you need a postnatal doula
You can Prepare Before Birth
During your pregnancy, you read up about postpartum traditions around the world, belly-binding, found countless DIY blogs on the net to make this and that for your post-birth sore bits and your good friends have even offered to bring over a couple of meals for you. So you figure you've got this fourth-trimester thing covered and have no need for a postnatal doula right!
The antenatal classes you attended let you know that you'll spend a day or two in the hospital. Once you are home, a midwife will come and check on you and your newborn for the first few weeks. Your physical well-being is taken care of and wrapped up at the 6-week check up with your GP or care provider.
You have visions of spending the first week or two around the house, not doing a whole lot except enjoying your sweet, new baby with your partner and maybe taking a leisurely stroll to your quiet neighbourhood park when you feel ready. Just relaxing and recovering from birth.
When maternity leave started a couple of weeks before bubs was due, you finished up organising the last few things on your to-do list. You've filled the freezer with a bunch of frozen meals, re-stocked the pantry with necessities and a couple of treats and made healthy meal plans for the first few weeks. You've finished off your playlist for birth, been to the bookstore for a couple of new books to keep your mind engaged in your downtime and written a short list of the series you want to binge-watch on Netflix while you're breastfeeding. Heck, you even printed out some free affirmations for your birth.
You're smart, you know that you will be tired and have made plans for naps in the afternoon. It's your first baby so there won't be any other distractions at home once you've flicked your phone on silent. Your partner has a couple of weeks off work to love on you and your baby and help out around the house. They can sweep floors and scrub the loo while you and your little jellybean take your nap. All organised.
Baby's nursery has been carefully constructed in the room next to yours. The cot and change table is set up and waiting. Tiny clothes have been washed and folded, patted and smoothed in anticipation for this wriggling being inside of you and yep, you've even checked out Pinterest and added a few on-trend decals and Kmart hacks.
You've got this mama! I know you've done your research and have the best intentions planned for your new little family so why bother with a postnatal doula?
My Birth Was Fine
A week or so past your due date, you go into labour and after waiting a few hours at home to make sure it really is the real thing, you and your partner head to the hospital. Labour is kind of like what you were told about but still not quite what you were expecting. Half a day later, your hard work is rewarded and a slippery, noisy little human is placed in your arms. The birth went pretty well apparently, you managed your planned drug-free vaginal birth and besides some tearing, you've been told you had it pretty easy for a first-time mum.
Bright bunches of flowers and helium-filled balloons are taking over your hospital room. Pastel coloured cards and notes from family and friends send their congratulations and best wishes. The midwives pop in regularly to make sure you're pooping and peeing, they ask you to buzz them for each breastfeed so they can check on baby's latch and document it in your notes. They go through their list to cross off all the things they need to cover with you before you head home and ensure their never-ending paperwork is done. I know some things might not seem easy straight away they tell you but hang in there, you'll soon learn what your baby needs.
You've struck it lucky to have such a settled baby! Baby is gaining weight, your body seems to be functioning as it should and you've been entrusted with the care of this tiny human being. You and your partner head home with full hearts ready to start your new life. Congratulations from me too.
This is babymoon bliss right? You're sitting by the warm fire in the lounge with your naked baby against you skin-to-skin. Your partner is in the kitchen making you a cup of tea and the midwife visited just this morning for your check-up and re-assured you that everything was going to plan, they'll just keep an eye on baby's weight. Friends pop in regularly for a cuppa to meet your baby girl and give you all the advice under the sun about what you should or shouldn't be doing.
But I see you Mumma with hot tears filling your tired eyes, waiting to spill down your cheeks. Your nipples are sore, your breasts are lumpy, it stings a little still when you go to the toilet and your settled baby isn't so settled anymore. It's like she's finally realised she's been born and isn't so happy about it. And just maybe you are wishing your partner's mate would leave so you could have some quiet to try and feed this crying baby.
The cot in the nursery remains unused because the only place she'll sleep is in your arms. Or for short periods in the bassinet next to your bed at night where you can hear every whimper she makes. Thousands of years of evolution have your parenting senses switched on yet you can't work out why she has been crying for the past hour. You'll look for some ideas on the internet and come across a local Adelaide doula offering postnatal support. It sounds like a good idea in theory but do you really want a stranger in the house? And anyway, you should probably try changing baby's nappy so you put the phone down and forget about it for now.
Your days have been filled with learning to breastfeed in between pumping to try and empty those lumpy breasts that seem to fill so quickly. You use your expressed milk for top-ups as you want to make sure your darling girl is getting enough after the midwife's comment about her weight. The exhaustion and overwhelm is starting to creep in. Your new books remain unread on your night stand under a pile of clean nappies and baby wipes ready for 3 am nappy changes. Walks in the park seem like a distant dream. Maybe you'll give that postnatal doula a call just to see what she sounds like. Some friendly conversation could be nice right about now....
Your partner has come down with a bad cold and you've been left to deal with the baby alone today. They feel guilty about not being able to help you much but are worried about sharing their germs. You'd love a visit from your mum but she is too far away to come and help and you feel alone. Exhausted, not sure that your baby even likes you and alone despite the daily visitors you've had since giving birth.
Every time your baby cries, you cry too and you feel like a hot mess. Maybe your friend was right and you should just let her cry it out, even though every maternal instinct tells you it doesn't feel good for your family, she'll get used to it right? You send that postnatal doula a text to see what she thinks and she lets you know she can be there in an hour if you'd like some support. Yes please if that's okay with you, you reply.
How Will a Postnatal Doula Help?
I arrive at your house and I'm greeted by your happy dog and tired partner. I see you sitting on the couch, surrounded by blankets and swaddles, a breast pump, a syringe to help finger-feeding, bottles of water and a mug of tea, forgotten and left to go cold. Baby has just been fed and seems to be going to sleep so we talk about what your days have been like. How hard it has been to learn this parenting gig despite all the research you've done and all the practicalities you'd prepared. Things just aren't going to plan and I can see you're feeling a little lost and unconfident. You tell me that you're starting to worry the baby blues might hang around.
A good postnatal doula will start by making sure your basic needs are met. Have you had something to drink or are you hungry? You've done really well to squeeze in a shower this morning amidst the chaos. What is the most important thing I can help you with right now? You'd like some help learning how to settle your baby... The lack of sleep has left you feeling like you can't calm her so when she keeps crying you become anxious and after a few minutes you give her to your partner as he seems to be able to settle her better. I show you the ring sling I've brought with me and explain how it works. If it's okay with you I can wear your baby for a little while and you can drink a hot cup of tea?
Is there anything I can help your partner with? He'd like to take the dog for a walk as he feels like he's been neglecting her too since the baby arrived... I see your eyes light up Mumma at the thought of going outside, so I ask if you'd like me to look after your baby for a little bit while you have some alone time with your partner. Take some time to reconnect, probably for the first time since your worlds were changed. It's okay to want to be alone for half an hour, you don't need to feel guilty. Catch your breath, take a moment to refresh your mind and body.
While you're gone, baby sleeps in the ring sling so I cut up some fresh vegetable sticks to keep in the fridge for you to snack on. Anything you can eat with one hand while breastfeeding is a winner! Baby and I do the dishes together and the kitchen is tidied in time for your return. When you return hand in hand, the tears are gone from your eyes and there is a gentle smile on your face. I always think it's amazing what a little fresh air and some oxytocin generation with your partner can do.
Postnatal Doulas Are Worth It
We talk some more about newborn cues and how babies can communicate. Being shown these practical suggestions helps with your confidence and is more useful to you than the generic "trust your instincts" or "let her cry" advice that you've heard this past week.
Baby is still sleeping so I suggest you should head to bed Mumma. Even if you don't sleep, get some therapeutic rest. If you really can't sleep, perhaps try listening to a couple of exercises from the free Mind the Bump app. ("Mind the Bump provides tailored exercises to support your mental and emotional well-being from day one of pregnancy through to 24 months after birth. The program is for mothers, fathers, single parents and same sex couples" http://www.mindthebump.org.au/).
As much as I love baby snuggles, their place is with their parents so I pass a sleepy baby over to Dad and sweep the floors and put some dinner on. He admits that he finds it hard to accept help but says it's a bit easier knowing that it is what they're paying me for. In between peeling potatoes, I show your partner a different way of rolling your baby when you're changing her nappy. You can watch this technique in the video below.
Dinner is cooking so I spend some time with your partner and baby while you rest. Your baby is quiet and content at the moment so I share with your partner how this is a great time for talking with your baby, reading stories together, singing songs and even playing little games with her. Enjoy these moments, they'll become more regular as you learn about each other and grow together as a family. He can share this information with you too later.
Taking turns with your baby, giving her undivided attention and copying her facial expressions are all great ways to develop the paths in her brain and let her know she is loved. It's also a great time for me to show parents how clever their baby really is and how much their baby loves them.
It's been a few hours since I arrived. Your confidence is starting to renew and I can see my time today is finished. So I leave you both sitting down to a hot dinner with your peaceful baby. I'll send you a text tomorrow to see how you went through the night and I'll visit again in a few days.
During future visits, we might process your birth story a little deeper (maybe it wasn't so fine after all), talk about recommendations for lactation consultants or chiropractors, share stories of being pooped on, run some errands together where you confidently breastfeed in public for the first time or I can show you the different babywearing options available to you from my collection. Each visit is different and unique to your circumstances. There are no boxes for me to cross or lists to check. I am focused on supporting the parents so that they can support their family.
Over the next month or so, I watch as new parents emerge from the cocoon of those early days with a newborn. With just a little bit of practical and non-judgemental support, you've both transformed into the happy, loving parents that you were always capable of being. Your partner has gone back to work. We've worked together to help you find the swing of things with the parenting style that fits your values and beliefs.
My work is done, thank you for sharing this time with me. I'm glad you bothered to hire a postnatal doula.
Kelly Harper is the owner of Elemental Beginnings in Adelaide, South Australia. She has been providing support to families since 2012 as a certified postnatal doula, placenta services specialist and birth doula. You can contact her through her website to book any of her services or for more information.