When your doula goes on call for your birth one of the first things she will do is make sure her doula bag is all packed and ready to go and safely kept so it can be grabbed on the way out the door to be with you.
You’re probably wondering what’s in this bag that makes it so special but before we get into that always remember what’s outside the bag is much more important. Sometimes birth happens fast and sometimes it takes even an experienced doula by surprise and we turn up by your side with nothing more than purse and keys. Any of the things we’re going to talk about can be improvised from what we find at your house or the hospital and many women will give birth without any ‘things’ at all just calm loving people marvelling at how wonderful they are.
Sometimes it can be a challenge, especially in our society where we find speed and measurement are so often expected to be a feature in birth experiences and where we often birth in unfamiliar surroundings, to reach that place of being totally in the zone and able to find the power in us to follow what our body is doing. The calm relaxing presence of a doula by your side is her main tool in helping you reach that place of feeling safe and relaxing into what your body is doing and letting it take over and get birth done. Her reassurance and ability to help those around you respect and honour your need for that calm quiet zone is her main tool and you can’t keep that in a bag.
When I asked the Hampshire doulas what from their doula bag they were most likely to use at a birth it came as no surprise that the things we use the most often are things that help women to find their birth zone and follow their body’s cues with the least possible disturbance. Our tools of the trade are the things which work with us in helping to hold the space women birth in and increase their natural levels of the all-important oxytocin.
Here we go with the answer to what is in our doula bags?
Battery Tealight Candles or Battery Fairy Lights.
One of the most important things for increasing the levels of oxytocin a birthing women is producing is to keep the lights low. Bright lights can make women too aware of their surroundings and the possibility of being observed which can stimulate the production of adrenalin -oxytocin’s natural enemy. Even when we’re at a birth without our bag we will help women to find a nice quiet spot to labour with low lights. The added benefit of the tea lights or fairy lights is they have a soft comforting light that we naturally associate with warm cosy evenings with our loved ones which helps women feel safe and produce more of the lovely oxytocin.
Women in labour need to keep hydrated, their bodies are doing really hard work and when we exercise we need to stay hydrated to keep our muscles working well. But when a woman is following her body’s cues to find the best position to stay comfortable she may not be in a great position for sitting back and drinking from a cup or bottle. Also taking small regular sips of water is often easier than trying to take a big drink. One frequent task doulas take on is holding the water and popping the straw in the right place to help the birthing woman stay hydrated without having her natural rhythm disrupted.
Coconut water, honey sticks, honey water, high protein nibbles.
As well as staying hydrated women need the energy to maintain their muscles to keep going through all the hard work, especially if they have a long labour. This needs to be provided, just as with the bendy straws for water, in a way that doesn’t disturb their natural labouring rhythm. So, having small easy to nibble high energy options to tempt mum with that she can finish in between contractions is something we’re practised at. We’re also very prepared for (and used to having) small amounts of things spat into our hands if a contraction hits and a woman feels she would prefer an empty mouth during contractions. One of the other things often in our doula bags is hand cream for ourselves in case we need to wash our hands frequently or have them into the water of the birth pool giving a back rub etc.
Not in every doula bag but in many because of the benefits of positive and relaxing smells in helping women stay in their labour bubble. A smell that you enjoy can help you relax and can cover up any unwanted smells like the medical smell of the hospital. There are other smells which can help you if you feel sick and others that can help you get your energy back. Some doulas have training or experience in using essential oils and will have a whole selection for you to choose from, the most popular during labour seem to be lavender and peppermint. Your doula will always chat to you about this during your pregnancy to make sure she only brings smells that you like into your birth space.
Flannel or face cloth.
This is a practical tool that gets used for various reasons. Sometimes it can be combined with the essential oils to keep them close enough to smell. (Not to be used for other things after that so sometimes we need two.) Other times it’s covered in cold water and used to help soothe a sweaty brow or on the back of the birthing woman’s neck to help cool her down. Sometimes it’s not needed till right at the end of labour when it can be soaked in warm water and used to support the perineum to help prevent tearing. Last but not least sometimes it’s needed after the birth to help the new mother clean herself up -those times we are ready to say thanks for all the hard work and goodbye to that trusty flannel and time to get a new one.
Homoeopathy, Acupuncture, photography, hypnobirthing, etc.
Some doulas are trained in other therapies or skills too and will bring their tools for that job with them. It might help you decide who’s the right doula for you if you know you would be interested in a certain type of complementary therapy or service check if your doula is willing and able to support you with that.
Snacks and a really good coffee for myself.
Knowing that we may well not get the chance for a break once we arrive at a birth we make sure we have good energising snacks for ourselves and potentially to share with a birth partner or midwife too. We need to keep ourselves full of energy so we can be as useful to you as long as you need us to whether your birth is short or long we’re totally in it with you for the whole time.
New baby Self Care. Not impossible and not trying to find time for a facial.
Once you have your new baby there’s a sudden shift of interest from friends, family and often even health professionals. From everyone being concerned with your health and wellbeing as a pregnant mum suddenly all the interest is in how your new baby is doing. Most of your interest is there too. Now you are a mum, the centre of your world has shifted. Your most urgent need is always to make sure your baby is happy and healthy. But this doesn’t mean you don’t matter anymore. Looking after yourself and having someone to look after you is still important too.
This might be the point you really need a doula in your corner because this is likely to be one of the most intense six weeks of your life and someone who knows how to support you to find your way through could be vital. Your postnatal doula is there for you however you need her to be there. She’s there to remember to look after you when you forget to look after yourself, to help you have a shower or a nap when you need one, to remind you to eat, to make sure the basic housework is done so you relax and don’t try to do it yourself. Most of all she’s there to listen to you, to understand your worries and joys and to support you with caring for your new baby and learning to be a mother.
I asked the Hampshire Doulas what their top tips are for making it through those first six weeks we came up with lots of ideas which all fit into a few main themes.
First look after yourself, be gentle with yourself.
This time is precious, you don’t need to get back to normal, you don’t need to fulfil some kind of superwoman ideal that involves living the same life as before your new baby arrived as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed, sleep will be different, learning to feed and care for a baby can be hard work. Looking after yourself may seem like the last thing you have time for but you can’t pour from an empty cup, now is the time to make time for self-care. For you, that might mean staying in your pyjamas for a week or it might mean getting up and having a shower and getting out the house even if it’s just to go for a walk around the block, this is about you, do it your way.
Listen to your instincts.
Trusting our instincts (or gut feelings) is not something we’re always used to doing in our everyday lives but they don’t go away just because we don’t notice them all the time. When we have a new baby the raw and sometimes overwhelming experience is the perfect time to reconnect with what comes to us as instinct. You won’t have to think about whether or not to respond to your baby when they cry your whole body and mind will do it and as you care for your baby you will learn gradually to understand your baby’s communication. You will learn which cry is for hungry, which is for wind which for dirty nappy and when your baby is telling you they are tired.
Be gentle with yourself it takes time, but listen to yourself. If you know you are too tired take action and get some help to get some sleep. If you know something is not quite right but you can’t put a finger on it then call your midwife or health visitor don’t over think and worry you’re just wasting their time, your instincts are there for a reason. If you feel like you can’t connect with your baby or you can’t cope with all your feelings or you can’t feel happy or you can’t stop the worry and panic, trust your instincts, it’s not supposed to be like this, talk to someone. Talk to your partner, your midwife, your doctor, the PANDAS helpline, just don’t bottle it up, get help.
Finally, always accept and ask for help and support from those around you.
Don’t fall for the myth that women should do this alone. We need our friends, family, baby group, online support group whichever works best for you. One thing you could do is get the people who want to visit to pay for cooing over your baby by pushing the hoover round or doing the dishes or bringing some dinner with them. But always feel free to say no, I’m not up for visitors today, or just invite the people who will sit by your side on the sofa and not notice the mess, do what works for you. Lots of mums find it’s helpful to be super honest with their close friends, admit it’s hard and talk about the ups and downs. Often, we find being honest gives others the freedom to be honest too, we all find it hard sometimes and we need each other to encourage us to keep going and enjoy the good times.
As doulas we never give advice, all of these are just ideas, information from people who have been there and got the t-shirt (it’s covered in baby sick) which we hope you will find helpful.
If you already have plenty of people in your life who have an opinion on the best way to care for your baby then a postnatal doula can be a great person to have on your side. We always trust that you will make the right decisions for you and your baby and we are there to support you to do things your way. We think new mums and dads are awesome and we want them to feel that way about themselves. Our ultimate goal as postnatal doulas is to do ourselves out of a job, to support you in a way that leaves you with the feeling, I can do this.