It can be so hard to imagine what it will be like to work with a birth doula until you've actually worked with one (or in our case, two). There are a bunch of articles out there about partners and doulas, but we wanted to share our own perspective on this.
Here are our answers to some of the common questions we hear from expecting parents around the topic of how doulas and partners work together in labor:
"Will having another person in the room (a doula) take away from the intimate birth experience we are envisioning?"
If you choose the right doula for you, absolutely not! Many doulas are sort of experts in fading into the background when it's called for. And we loooove to see couples sharing intimate moments during labor! Sometimes, having a doula present to set the tone and help you settle in might actually help to foster the intimate birthing environment you're looking for.
"My partner wants to be really involved the birth process, so a doula seems redundant. I wouldn't want a doula to replace my partner during labor."
First of all: your partner is not your doula. Partners and doulas fill very different roles during labor, and probably almost every doula will tell you that they don't (can't) replace the support of a loving partner!
Your partner has intimate knowledge of you - your likes and dislikes, the ways you like to be comforted, things that help you feel better when you're having a hard time, things that make you laugh, and so much more. Most of the time, doulas only know their clients for a few months - there's no way we could learn everything about you that your partner already knows just in that time, no matter how many prenatal visits we do!
Doulas have intimate knowledge of birth. Many doulas have spent years attending births, developing their skills, and learning about the latest research and best practices when it comes to supporting parents through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum time. Since we aren't related to our clients (most of the time), there is an extra layer of objectivity that can help us keep a clear head when challenges arise during labor.
Having people on your birth team with each of these "skill sets" can be invaluable! That connection you have with your partner plus the knowledge and experience of your doula can be a powerful combination when it comes to helping you through the challenges of labor.
"We attended childbirth classes together, so my partner knows what to do to help me in labor."
First of all, so glad to hear you spent time together preparing for birth by taking some classes! Preparing for the realities of labor ahead of time can bring you and your partner some peace of mind as your birth approaches.
But it's important to know that birth can bring many twists and turns. No childbirth class could possibly prepare parents for every single possible thing that might arise during birth.
Preparation can be a wonderful thing. But without in-the-moment support from someone who's been through the labor process with other parents many times before, there's a huge possibility that you or your partner may feel at a loss during labor.
Participating in childbirth classes, reading books, and spending time learning about birth is great. But it doesn't make your partner a doula.
So as birth doulas, how exactly do we support partners?
We offer support in labor before you've arrived at your birth place. If you're planning to birth at a birth center or hospital, chances are pretty good that you'll spend some time (or quite a bit of time) in labor at home before heading to your final birthing location. A doula can support you in your home before there are any other care providers around to help.
We recognize that partners go through their own rite of passage when their loved one is in labor. Often the experience of partners is swept aside because all eyes are on the person in labor. As doulas, we bring an appreciation for the deeply personal journey of accompanying a loved one through their labor journey. We validate the often complex emotions partners experience before, during, and and after labor, and as both parents adjust to life with their little one. Read more about our perspective on birth as a rite of passage.
We help partners understand what's going on. We can act as translators in a way, helping parents to understand (in plain language) what care providers are saying throughout labor. We validate and normalize things that are happening during labor, helping parents understand what to expect next. Most of our clients tell us afterward that having someone in the room who was experienced with birth helped to lessen the intensity and stress of helping their partner through labor.
We're an extra set of hands. If the person in labor needs a lot of hands-on support and comfort measures (like massage, counterpressure, fanning, etc.), we can trade off with partners or divide duties (one person fans while the other person massages, or one person helps guide breathing during a tough contraction and the other gets a wet washcloth ready to help cool them down). You'd be surprised how often it can really take 2 people to help someone through labor!
We can give partners ideas for what to do or try to help the person in labor feel supported and surrounded with care. Many partners don't have much experience with birth (if any), so we can help guide them in knowing what to do to help their person get through it. When a partner wants to be really involved during labor but isn't quite sure exactly how to do that in a way that doesn't earn them a "STOP DOING THAT" mid-contraction, a doula can give them some ideas. Sometimes a doula knows just the thing to help a partner move from anxious hovering to grounded, loving connection during labor.
We can help set the tone of the laboring space. Many of our clients are birthing in the hospital, which can present challenges when it comes to creating a relaxing, focused laboring space. While partners are supporting the person in labor, we usually spend a few minutes dimming the lights, setting out some flameless candles or twinkle lights, and turning on some music to help set the mood. (We bring all of those things with us to births to help encourage parents to feel more like themselves, even in the midst of medical equipment and hospital beds.) Sometimes having someone else in charge of those details can help both parents relax and feel a little more taken care of, not to mention enjoying the new and improved atmosphere.
We help you focus on what's important during chaotic and overwhelming moments. The labor room can get a little crazy sometimes, even when everything is going great. In moments where a flurry of activity, voices, beeping machines, or other distractions become a little overwhelming, doulas can help partners focus in on what's important so they can stay more present for their loved one.
We have tips and tricks to help you get what you need, even in a hospital setting. Some doulas (ourselves included) are very experienced with hospital births and have some tricks up our sleeves to help support families in that setting. We are familiar with common protocols and able to help you understand what to expect and where and how you can ask for care that's more personalized for your needs.
We can help facilitate positive communication with your care team. Sometimes it can be easy for partners to be in a protective, defensive mode while their person is in labor - and that's perfectly understandable! That protective instinct serves a wonderful biological purpose as partners help to keep their loved one safe and cared for during a vulnerable time. But sometimes, the adrenaline and stress hormones that can come along with those moments of intense protectiveness can make it difficult to have calm, productive communication with care providers. Doulas can help partners feel more calm, recognize positive intentions of members of the care team, and help to facilitate positive communication. And if there is someone on the care team who doesn't seem to have your best interests in mind, we can sometimes help to facilitate a staffing change to help parents feel more supported by their caregivers.
Alternatively, sometimes partners feel like a deer in headlights during labor. A doula can help remind partners of questions they had wanted to ask or requests they wanted to make even when it feels intimidating to speak up in the moment.
We can give partners a break. Have you ever gone 24 hours or more without eating or going to the bathroom? Well, chances are good partners will need to do both of those things several times during labor. When a doula is present, partners can rest easy knowing that there is someone with their loved one when they need to take a break. Whether it's a chance to get some food, go to the bathroom, make a phone call, or just take a few moments to collect their thoughts, there will always be someone with their loved one if they're out of the room getting some much-needed nourishment for body or soul.
We act as an informational resource. Chances are partners won't remember everything that was said or presented during a childbirth class. And with a doula present, they don't have to! One of our primary roles during birth is to offer in-the-moment information and education to help parents make decisions, figure out another coping strategy that could help, understand why their loved one is experiencing various sensations or side effects during labor, and so much more. If things move away from the direction of the birth plan, a doula is there to help partners regain some balance and direction.
We can offer guidance when decisions need to be made. We specialize in helping parents make decisions during labor - from gathering information to asking questions to figuring out what the path forward might be, we're there to help. Without a doula, those moments of uncertainty during labor can be extremely challenging or even traumatic (as many of our postpartum clients who have been through birth without a doula have shared with us).
We can take photos of special moments in labor you may want to remember. Now, we're definitely not professional photographers. (You can hire a birth photographer if you want beautiful professional photos of your birth.) But we love to take photos on parents' own camera or phones if they want us to capture some special moments during labor or once baby arrives. Many partners breathe a huge sigh of relief when they hand us their camera to take some photos - they usually would much rather just enjoy the moment than worry about taking pictures!
We don't just help during birth, but before and afterward too. We offer prenatal support by answering parents' questions, helping parents debrief after medical appointments, providing resources to help parents learn more about something specific, asking questions to get parents thinking about something they hadn't yet considered, and last but not least helping to build the pregnant person's confidence in their ability to meet the challenges of labor. After birth, we remain a resource for parents. In our case, we also offer in-home lactation help and postpartum doula support to help families adjust to life with their new little one.
Most of all, we help partners feel able to relax and focus on loving and supporting their person during labor.
Sometimes the phrase "holding space" is used to describe what doulas do. Without agenda, we act as guides and helpers along the way as our clients walk the path toward parenthood. We make room for ALL parents to develop their own internal resources, ask for what they need, and feel supported each step of the way... and we love what we do.
For other reasons you might choose to work with a birth doula, check out this blog post.