What is a postpartum doula?


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The word doula, meaning "woman's servant," comes from ancient Greek and is now used to refer to a woman experienced in childbirth who provides continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during and just after childbirth (birth doula); or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period (postpartum doula).

A postpartum doula:

  •  Offers education, quiet nonjudgmental support, and companionship during the postpartum 4th trimester.
  • Assists with newborn care, family adjustment, meal preparation, and light household tidying.
  • Offers evidence-based information on infant-feeding, emotional and physical recovery from childbirth, infant soothing, and coping skills for new parents; and makes appropriate referrals when necessary.
It is important to note that a postpartum doula offers non-medical support only -- this includes emotional, physical, and educational support. The doula does not perform medical or clinical tasks such as examining the mother or baby, taking temperatures, or performing blood pressure checks. It is a doula's job to offer information and make referrals to medical personnel if necessary, but it is out of their scope to give medical advice or make medical judgments. 

In traditional societies women and men grow up around birth, breastfeeding, infants and children. After giving birth, women are surrounded by caring family members who have a great deal of wisdom and experience to offer. This kind of support is rarely available to new parents internationally. The doula's support is intended to fill the gaps left by our customary postpartum practices, which usually include only medical procedures, occasional checkups and the purchase of baby-related paraphernalia. The doula's education, quiet support, and guidance are a manifestation of the traditional postpartum support that our society is missing.

Why would I need a postpartum doula? I have relatives and friends that are coming to help me after I give birth.

Well, that's fantastic! You are one of the lucky American women who have a strong support system already in place. Unfortunately, this is not as common as it once was.

In our society, many new parents find themselves ill-prepared for the transition to parenthood and isolated from caring, knowledgeable helpers and advisors. In times past, new parents could usually depend on their own parents, other family members, or friends to assist them. While these resources are still available today, they are frequently spotty and inadequate, due to great distances between new parents and their loved ones, and other demands on loved ones that take priority over the new family's needs.

Even given your amount of support, I still wouldn't necessarily say that you would not benefit from having a postpartum doula. Research on mothers and infants is constantly being performed, and many practices that our mothers and grandmothers utilized are now considered incorrect or in some cases, even dangerous. This is not to say that your mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives were wrong, not at all. All mothers do the best they can with the information given them, because they love their children and want only the best for them. It's just that these things sometimes change when new information becomes available.

Most importantly, a postpartum doula helps all family members transition, not just the new parents. The doula can help friends and family members foster and support the parenting decisions of the new parents. By modeling a deep respect for the wisdom and decision making abilities of the new parents, she makes clear  that supporting them will have the best possible results. 

This validates and empowers parents to use their intuitive ability to nurture and encourages them to develop and implement their own parenting style. Confidence is key for happy parents!

Is there any research involving postpartum doulas? What are the outcomes?

There is definitely more research involving birth doulas, since postpartum doulas are just now becoming popular, but there is certainly research supporting the use of postpartum doulas!

Research by experts tells us what many have long suspected -- that those new parents who have support and feel secure and cared for during this time are more successful in adapting than those who don't. Studies have shown that cultures in which women are cared for by others for a defined period of days or weeks and are expected only to nurture themselves and their babies during that time have superior outcomes in postpartum adjustment. We know that women who experience support from their family members, care providers, counselors, and peer groups have greater breastfeeding success, greater self-confidence, less postpartum depression, and a lower incidence of abuse than those who do not.

There is also evidence indicating that timely referrals to competent, appropriate professionals and support groups can have a significant positive outcome for the family. Parents benefit from education on what to expect from a newborn, baby-soothing skills, feeding, bonding and attachment, and coping skills. Rather than being told to "help out", partners and other family members benefit from concrete instruction and role modeling on how to support a woman during the weeks after birth.

What is the difference between a postpartum doula and a baby nurse or mother's helper?

Some "baby nurses" are licensed nurses who provide care for infants with medical needs. Others are lay people who specialize in care of babies. Baby nurses are different from doulas in that their role is specifically geared toward infant care. Doulas provide excellent infant care, but their primary focus is educating and supporting parents and providing breastfeeding support, emotional support, resources, and any necessary referral information.
A  "mother's helper" is a lay person, either adult or adolescent, who comes into the home to assist parents with childcare and household tasks. They are not trained in breastfeeding education, integrating the baby into the home, or the many other aspects of postpartum doula support.