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With everything that goes into preparing for pregnancy—being pregnant, giving birth, bringing the baby home and all that comes after—one thing can get severely overlooked: moms’ overall health. But in recent years, there’s been a shift in how we talk about and care for moms during pregnancy and postpartum, and that’s due in part to Latham Thomas.
Thomas is a master doula and founder of Mama Glow, a New York City-based maternity lifestyle brand that offers doula support for every stage of pregnancy and postpartum. She has helped countless mothers (including a few famous ones) on their pregnancy and postpartum journey and is an avid advocate for making birth safe for ALL women. We had a chance to talk to Thomas about all things doula, specifically using a doula for postpartum care.
What is a doula and what do they do?
Traditionally, a doula is a person who is there to provide support for a mom during childbirth. The support is physical and emotional and aims to help mothers achieve optimal health during labor and delivery. Doulas are for “people who are anywhere along the reproductive continuum that want nonclinical support,” says Thomas. “[Support] that’s more emotionally based, that’s more holistic in terms of exploring your experience from a lens that’s emotional, that’s physiological, kind of your mental health, your spiritual wellbeing, all of these aspects are supported through a doula who’s looking at your experience as the one that’s transformative.” And Thomas says that doulas can provide support to moms not just during childbirth, but it “could be fertility, could be pregnancy and birth, it could be postpartum, it could be abortion and loss, it can be bereavement, doulas are there. One person can fill all those roles or there are individual doulas who really specialize in those specific areas.”
What’s the history of doulas?
“The first African midwives”, shares Thomas on the Mama Glow website, “brought with them ancestral wisdom along with their rituals for prenatal care from many different African cultures. Their extensive knowledge and well-honed skills positioned them to care for African women and white women in the US as well as deliver their babies. Very often the midwives would look after entire families, providing primary care for women, pediatric care for newborn infants and children, and medical care for men when necessary or if there was no doctor around.”
Do you need a postpartum doula?
Now that we know doulas can help for every part of the pregnancy experience, you may be interested in working with one exclusively during postpartum, and it turns out that’s quite common. “It’s because this time in one’s life where you cross this threshold, and you become a new mother, a new parent, is a very delicate process, and it’s under supported in the West,” says Thomas. “If you look at every other global culture, there is a postpartum tradition in place; it’s just the U.S. that does not have [one]. Postpartum doulas can offer the same support as they would during pregnancy and childbirth to help moms navigate recovery and integration”, says Thomas.
Thomas suggests that if you’re considering hiring a doula for postpartum, plan on at least a six-week commitment. “We like at least six weeks because that first 40 days is really critical for healing and integration and most cultures have a sort of mandate that you rest for that period of time,” she says. And keep in mind that even though you are asking for postpartum help, it’s best to enlist the doula while you’re pregnant so they can get a feel for your situation. “It’s great when somebody meets with you before your baby even arrives because then they can help you design stuff so that as soon as you get home, soon as I know you go into labor, I’m already headed over to the house to get things set up, so that’s a benefit,” says Thomas.
What does a postpartum doula do for new moms?
“There’s a lot of support that happens”, says Thomas, “and recovery is a big deal. Once you deliver a baby, there’s this healing that has to be done. Obviously, there’s tons of physical support there especially if you’ve had a surgical delivery. There’s support with learning how to breastfeed, learning how to change a diaper, making sure you’re getting adequate nutrition, helping with moving things or figuring out where things go in the home because everything’s new once the baby gets here. It’s like, ‘Where do we store the bottles? Or where do we put this?’ It’s a lot of that.”
She admits, “It’s moving stuff around, it’s organizing, but mainly, it’s making sure that mom rests. I think that there’s a really weird notion here that you have to be busy as soon as your baby comes, you’re deposed and you have to do this. People need to rest. This is a really critical period for rest and to restore the body, to build back up the blood and other systems in the body, and to allow for that.”
How is a postpartum doula different from a baby nurse?
Thomas does not mince words when it comes to this:
A doula is there for the mother
“A doula is not a childcare provider,” she says. “There are people who can do that, and they’re called nannies or baby nurses. Doulas are not here to take care of babies; they’re here to take care of the birthing person.” Thomas stresses that just like a baby needs comfort, care and love after being born, a mother also needs support after giving birth. Doulas are “here to swaddle them to make sure that they have the emotional needs met, they’re here to make sure that they’re eating, they’re here to make sure that they’re resting, but they’re not there to babysit. That’s not their role.”
Does a doula help with the feeding journey?
Thomas considers everything part of the reproductive continuum as part of the birth villages’ responsibility. “From the moment someone decides that they’re having a baby or knows that they’re pregnant, questions about how they expect to do whatever it is pertaining to their baby are going to be things that we think about, but certainly, how someone plans to feed their baby is a question that we would be asking to help them design solutions for that, whatever their responses and whatever their feeding pathways are.”
She goes on to say that, “We find so many people who you would hope have a really great journey into breastfeeding and they get with the wrong provider and it really is discouraging. It’s not just on the lactation consultants, but it’s on the entire community to ensure success with feeding. That means having positive examples of folks in your family.”
Doulas and advocacy for moms
One of the most important, yet perhaps overlooked, parts of working with a doula is advocacy. A doula is there to communicate and sometimes speak up for mothers when they cannot speak for themselves. “We need advocacy tools to be able to use our voices,” says Thomas. “To speak up for our needs, to be able to provide informed consent, all of these things are critically important.
During pregnancy and in those first few months after giving birth, things can seem a bit hazy, and moms need a lot of support. A doula can work with a mom to have the self-confidence to do things themselves, says Thomas, and sometimes, more importantly, to ask for help. “These skillsets and the muscles of asking for help have to start in pregnancy because if we think we’re going to start asking people for help postpartum, we will not,” she says.
Thomas and Mama Glow take it a step further. “We have people who really thrive in their practices because they’re skilled to understand the nuances of what support should look like,” she says. “And also where there are policy gaps, where there are information gaps, where there are educational gaps and where there are cultural gaps. They know how to meet those needs.”
If you’re considering enlisting a doula for postpartum care, but are still unsure, Thomas puts it pretty simply: “I think we teach things that are going to centralize or center the experiences of folks who have been historically excluded or underrepresented,” she says. “If you can support those people who the system is not designed to support, you can support anybody.”
We are proud to support the Mama Glow Foundation, committed to advancing reproductive justice through education, advocacy and the arts.