A Doula’s Best Instructor

What does one have to do to become a doula? To become a certified, you must generally attend lectures and/or workshops, read a variety of books on birth/breastfeeding/newborn care/etc., complete writings in relation to coursework, and of course, fulfill practicum requirements by actually attending births. Each one of these requirements has taught me so much about my work with moms, birth, and babies. But who have been my best teachers?


It’s funny how we as doulas always herald phrases like, “watch the mom, not the monitor,” and “follow mom’s lead..” and still- in a moment of fear or stress, I’ve found myself racking my brain for advice I could offer instead of asking my client how she’s feeling.

If you are a doula, what about you? Have you caught yourself flipping through birth books for ideas, or watching the EFM print-out for contractions on the rise, or making irrelevant suggestions, or asking the mother to move to your favorite pushing position (instead of her own)? Have you found yourself worried because mom’s labor slowed, and tried to get it started again without thinking through why it may have slowed? Are you more satisfied in telling the mother how to labor than you are in seeing how she does it herself?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take advantage of our resources, or that we shouldn’t make suggestions. There is a time and place for these actions. For example, a mom might be caught in a moment of panic and need her doula to ground her. Or she might not know what to expect next and needs explanation. Or maybe staff and/or family members place emotional or physical stresses on the mother that make it difficult for her to focus. Sometimes necessary medical treatments can interfere with mothers’ natural coping measures and the doula needs to help her find her “ritual” again. Sometimes societal expectations cause a mother to be hesitant to try what feels right to her because she feels embarrassed or frightened, and she needs the doula to be sensitive to her desires and encourage them.

However, with each birth I attend I learn more and more that each mom, when left free to labor as she pleases, instinctively knows works for her as she births her own baby.

As much material as a doula may know, she doesn’t know exactly what and how the mom is feeling during labor. She should observe, listen, and ask the mother:

  • How is she feeling emotionally? Emotional needs must be considered during labor, sometimes even more than physical ones. Is the mom frightened? Discouraged? Angry? Panicked? All of these feelings can and often do affect her labor greatly. 
  • How is she feeling physically? Is there any cause for extra pain? Is she as comfortable as she can possibly be? Is she exhausted? Don’t make her walk 2 hours if she’s been laboring all night and needs to rest. Pay attention to her cues and follow her lead.
  • Is what she’s doing working for her, or does something need to change? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If mom is handling her pain well already, jump in and support what she’s doing in whatever way you can. Don’t interrupt her with unnecessary suggestions. If what she is doing isn’t working, this is when you can try different ideas that might help her.
  • Are all of her needs being met? Check, check, and triple check. (Maybe not out loud- that could get obnoxious!) Does she have everything she’d like, such as extra pillows, water, a light snack, a cool cloth? Watch to make sure that everything she needs is filled, turned, fluffed, wet-down, readily available- whatever it is- make sure it’s right! And if you can, be like a good waitress and refill her water (etc.,etc.) BEFORE she asks for it.

In all things, follow the mother’s lead. Support her in her groove instead of taking her out of it. Pay attention to her needs and desires- not what you think you would want. In all situations, be sensitive.

Mothers can teach those around them a lot- if they are allowed to do so. Sometimes mothers can surprise you with a natural resource you never would have thought of, or come up with more strength than you could have offered. Sometimes their choices may be different from your own, but they make those choices for their own reasons. Every birth is unique, and I have learned something new from every mother I have had the privilege of serving.

Thank you, moms, for allowing me the honor of serving you, but also for being my very best teachers.

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