I wrote a blog a while back in which I argued that we need to require parenting classes for everyone. They should be at least as prevalent as Driver’s Ed classes.
I had my first child at 30, in 1980. I was a cultured New Yorker with a post-graduate education. But I knew nothing about babies. I held a baby for the first time when I was six months pregnant. Unfortunately, my baby was born seriously premature, with a non-functioning lung. He was in the Preemie unit of the hospital for six weeks. During that time, I pumped my breasts so I could nurse him. He came home from the hospital at just under five pounds.
During those six weeks in the hospital, I got to pick the brains of the well-trained and highly knowledgeable neonatal nurses. I learned a tremendous amount and came home armed with enough information and confidence to weather the first few months at home with David. In effect, I had the help and support of several Doulas. They helped me learn how to handle a tiny, underweight baby, nurse him, change him, treat diaper rash, etc.
In my day, most first time mothers had to rely on relatives, friends, or other new mothers they had met in Mommy and Me classes to figure out how to handle all the issues that arise with a new baby. This can often result in contradictory or inaccurate advice, creating confusion and doubt rather than confidence. But today, new mothers with financial resources, don’t have to go it alone anymore.
Enter the Postpartum Doula. Birth Doulas have been around for a long time. They are trained women who support, educate and advise pregnant women through their pregnancies and childbirth. Medicaid even covers birth Doulas in a few states in the U.S. It is generally accepted that these Doulas improve health outcomes. They lower the incidence of a cesarean as well as the surprisingly high incidence of maternal deaths in childbirth. This rate is especially high among black and brown women.
Postpartum Doulas are a newer phenomenon that has caught on in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Other countries provide Birth and Postpartum Doulas as part of their national healthcare programs. Postpartum Doulas are like a Mary Poppins for new mothers and infants. They are the friend, sister, teacher, and advocate. They teach new mothers all kinds of tricks about soothing a crying baby, nursing, bathing, swaddling, etc.
They calm the mother’s fears and help them deal with the anxieties of the new dads. They also help mediate with eager to help grandparents and other family members and friends who want to give unsolicited advice. They advocate for their clients to doctors and nurses. Overall, they make the new mother feel supported, confident, and in control. That prepares the new mom to deal with whatever may come up in the future after the Doula leaves the scene.
My friend’s daughter just had a baby in England and she received free weekly visits from her Postpartum Doula, as well as unlimited phone calls. When there was a nursing crisis, the Doula made a house call, again free of charge. These more evolved countries understand the importance of the postpartum period in the emotional and physical well-being of both mother and baby.
Postpartum Doulas are becoming more prevalent in the U.S. but they are largely unsubsidized and very expensive. The majority of women who use Postpartum Doulas are upper-middle-class women who can afford $50-$70 an hour over a period of at least six weeks.
There are some low-cost Postpartum Doula collectives in the States for women who couldn’t otherwise afford a Doula. Poorer women are often the group that most needs the help of a Doula. Apparently, poor women of color can be afraid to ask for help with their babies. The fear is that a black woman might lose her baby if she admits that she is overwhelmed or exhausted. This is so sad!
Every woman should be able to have access to informative and supportive professional caregivers in the first few months of their child’s life. Mothers and grandmothers can be helpful, but there is always baggage, judgment, and a need to push a particular childcare practice. These people also often focus completely on the baby and forget about the needs of the exhausted and nervous new mom.
So the neutral, non-judgmental Doula is often a valued addition to the new baby’s family life. Especially since the Doula is also trained to soothe and relax the mother as well as the baby. So let’s hope that we start to catch up with Europe on this important issue, and make Postpartum Doulas affordable and accessible to everyone who wants one.