Advice for New Doulas

It can be hard to know what to do or where to start as a newly trained doula.  I can remember, just a few years ago, being newly out of training with a few pregnant acquaintances wanting someone to mentor me and give me advice on how to set up my business, attract clients and be the best new doula possible.  So, here are my top ten hints based on what I’ve learned so far.

1.  Network with other doulas and people within the birth community.  Experienced doulas are often asked for referrals to doulas in training or who are working at low-cost and they are much more likely to refer to you if they have met you.  Build a good reputation.  Other people that work with pregnant moms, like prenatal yoga instructors, acupuncturists, chiropractors, midwives, OBs, pediatricians, prenatal fitness specialists, etc. are also asked to refer to doulas.  Refer potential clients that are seeking these professionals or a more experienced doula to your new contacts and they will think of you the next time they are asked about a doula in training.

2.  Continue your education.  As a new doula, it is easy to assume that you have al the training you need or to want to take every birth-related training available.  Do some soul searching and thoughtfully consider what types of additional training you need for the clientele you are hoping to work with and/or what additional trainings peak your interest and never stop learning or seeking new skills.

3.  Find a reliable back up.  It doesn’t matter if you are trying to take 1 birth every two months or 2 births per month, there will come a time when you need a back up.  Whether it is because one mama is in labor 4 weeks early and one mama is in labor 2 weeks late or it is because you have the flu, had a car accident, or had a family emergency, it is unethical to practice as a doula without a good back up arrangement in place.  The other side of this is, volunteer to back up the doulas in your area and always be reliable.  It is a great way to gain experience at births and build a reputation in your community as a team player.

4.  Get good rest when you are on call and sleep when your client is in early labor.  When you are on call for a client is not the best time to check out that concert that will last until 3 in the morning or agree to make dinner for 12 people.  Take the time that you are on call as a time to recharge for yourself and in preparation for supporting mama and baby.  An addendum to this hint is to sleep when your client is in early labor.  Begin to get to know what “real” labor looks like and try to get some rest when your client is having contractions that come and go or last for 20 seconds or come every 15 minutes.  It is easy as a new doula to want to be with mama as soon as anything changes, but early/pre-labor can last for days or even weeks, so rest while you can and join mama when she really needs you for extra comfort and support.  You will be a better doula for her if you learn to rest and encourage her to rest as much as possible early on.

5.  Learn to live on a “maybe” schedule.  Begin to tell everyone in your life maybe.  Practice saying things like  “Sure, I’d love to join you for movie/bowling/dinner, barring being called to a birth.” or “I can’t commit to that date night/cocktail hour/day trip until I know whether the mama I’m working with has had her baby.”  Life as a doula is a spontaneous and joyful adventure, but doesn’t really allow for much planning ahead.  Learn to love, or at least accept, that as your practice grows, so will the maybe’s.

6.  Learn self-care practices and incorporate them into your life.  I feel like triple starring this one.  It is like all of those old sayings and airplane emergency procedure announcements about how you have to take care of yourself before you can assist another.  If you are stressed and depleted, you will not make a very good doula.  Learn at the very beginning of your practice, before you are super busy, how to incorporate self-care practices into your maybe lifestyle.  It may be that, in the past, you went on long hikes in the park or to a myriad of yoga classes to combat stress and decompress.  Well, either plan on taking your phone on those excursions and having a plan to get from the park/class to the client within an hour or so or start to develop some at home self-care practices to help you unwind.  Simple practices like having a cup of tea on your porch, taking a warm bath, doing some simple restorative yoga poses in your living room or taking a walk around the block can be your life saving tools while on call.  An addendum to this tip is, at least once a year, take a week off.  This is where your back up comes into play and you get to do everything you want, no maybe schedule, either at home or on a vacation for a whole week!!!

7.  Go to births, even pro-bono or low-cost births.  When I was first starting out as a doula, I charged my first few clients $100.  That covered my gas and parking fees to visit them prenatally, get to and from their birth location, and visit them postpartum.  Even as an experienced doula, I still take low cost births if I have time in my schedule or want to work with a particular family or gain experience with a particular situation.  As a doula, there is no substitute for experience at births.  Go to a few births, even if you can’t cover your costs.  You will gain so much experience and a lot more clients once you can say that you’ve been to 2 births instead of zero.

8.  Don’t ever work harder for something than your client wants to work for it.  Be a good observer of the people you work with.  If your client is on the fence about a particular intervention, that is ok.  Don’t push her to make the decision that you would make if you were in her shoes.  If your client changes her mind during labor, that is ok too.  If you feel that your client is working really hard for something and has a good reason for wanting things that way, it is your job to support her.  On the other hand, if your client doesn’t want to try the things you are suggesting to help avoid a particular intervention or help her be more comfortable, back off.  It is still your job to support her in her decisions.  If you are working harder than your client, you will just come across as pushy or overbearing.

9.  Do not judge your client’s decisions.  It is her birth.  This goes along with #8.  NEVER judge your client’s decisions.  You are not in her body.  You are not having her baby.  It is her birth and part of her transition to motherhood and sense of empowerment from the experience comes from being able to make her own decisions and be supported while making them, not from you deciding for her.  If you have feelings of disappointment or regret about your client’s decisions, recognize that those feelings are your “stuff”.  Talk to a therapist, your partner, another doula or a friend about your feelings, but don’t put them off on your client.

10.  Don’t forget to eat and drink before, during and after the birth.  Be careful of your own health.  Caring for your own health models good behavior to your clients and also helps you recover from long or difficult labors.  Eat and drink healthy foods on your way to the birth, during the birth and on your way home.  Pee when you need to.  Call in your back up for a few hours of rest if you’ve been hands on with a mama for 20 hours.  Taking care of yourself will help you better support the moms in your care and also make you more likely to continue to enjoy your career as a doula.

I could probably add 15 more hints about managing your business, marketing, client meetings, labor tools, etc., but these 10 are basic and important and will help get you started.

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