The postpartum period is typically defined as the first three to four months of a newborn’s life. It is a wonderful, but challenging period for everyone involved. Mama is healing and regardless of how smoothly the birth went, her body has a great deal of adjusting to do during this time…not to mention that there is a new and needy little person in her life to care for as she recovers.
Where family and friends are irreplaceable parts of the postpartum adjustment period, there are some real advantages to hiring a doula to aid in this transition. Doulas are hired to help, not just to visit with the growing family. This can have some real advantages, especially for the new mother, who shouldn’t feel obligated to entertain the doula, or even be awake during the session. A postpartum doula can hold baby while mama gets some much needed rest or time to herself, or takes a shower, runs errands, etc.
A doula is also there to help the family care for baby in the way that best meets their individual needs, without injecting personal bias or potentially negative advice. In the instance of things like babywearing, co-sleeping, pacifiers, sleep training, and other topics that often trigger strong opinions, a doula helps guide the parents in making informed decisions and eventually following through with them without judgment. Finding a postpartum doula who is comfortable with the decisions you are making is therefore essential, so make sure to be up-front in your interviews.
If you are choosing to breastfeed baby, a doula can be an essential component in your support team. Although breastfeeding is a fundamental mammalian trait, that doesn’t mean it’s always a walk in the park. Additionally, many of us weren’t breastfed ourselves because of cultural trends present in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, so finding immediate family help in the traditional sense may prove difficult. Postpartum doulas and lactation consultants are helping to close this generation gap by supporting more and more mothers in breastfeeding successfully for as long as they choose (the WHO recommends at least six months), something that can then be passed along to friends, family members, and future generations. There is a range of breastfeeding expertise amongst postpartum doulas, but all have some training in assisting women in breastfeeding – including pumping, some common complications – in emotional support, and in where to turn when issues go beyond their knowledge.
One great function of both birth and postpartum doulas is in their connection to the wider community of practitioners who work with families in the childbearing year. Doulas tend to be great networkers out of passion and necessity, and often maintain personal connections to providers such as massage therapists, chiropractors, herbalists, pediatricians, nutritionists, Chinese medicine and naturopathic doctors, cranial sacral therapists, and counselors who work specifically with postpartum disorders. It can be a great help for a tired and maybe frustrated new mama to have those resources already scouted out by way of her doula, and may help get her in the door sooner – or at all.
In our largely individualistic society, the first few months of a baby’s life can be severely isolating for a new mother. Many women report having issues of anxiety and depression that may not meet the standards of chemical disorder as we’d normally define it, but that are very real. Postpartum doulas are trained to help screen for these mood issues and both help ease them through compassionate support, and potentially catch the early warning signs of a transition into (or the ongoing presence of) a more serious disorder. A partner may not see these things as blatantly as a doula because he or she is likely experiencing a number of intense and valid emotional and physical shifts as well. Family members may miss the warning signs because mama is putting her best face forward when company is around. The mother should be at ease around her doula and be able to confide in her any feelings she may be experiencing as a result of this intense transitional period, which will ultimately aid her in getting any help she needs.
This is not to make the postpartum period seem scary. In most cases, it is a deeply rewarding and magical period in a woman’s life. Still, it is a tremendous amount of work caring for an entirely dependent new being and should not fall on the shoulders of a mother alone. Hiring an impartial, well trained, caring doula can help make this transitional time go as beautifully as possible.
If you hired a doula to attend your birth, talk to her about possibly extending her services into the postpartum period. Some birth doulas are trained as postpartum doulas as well, others will know of doulas in the area who specialize in postpartum care. As with birth doulas, postpartum doulas come with a range in backgrounds and expertise and offer different services and differing rates. Some do nighttime care, some won’t work with formula feeding families, some don’t do housekeeping, some will cook large meals, some care for older siblings, some have added knowledge of herbs or are also lactation consultants. Make sure to do some research and interview a couple of doulas before making your decision so that you find the right fit for you.
Emily Flynn is a birth and postpartum doula and student midwife in Durango, Colorado. She has been in birth work for about four years and has been writing about maternal care policies and other related information for the majority of that time.