Doula History: Origins, Culture, and Postpartum Rituals

The word “Doula” is a Greek word that literally means “female slave for the child-bearing woman.” Today the word has come to mean “One who mothers the mother.”

A pregnant woman will be given excellent prenatal care and classes to inform her about what to expect during labor, but little is said about what to expect at home after birth. Many mothers find themselves leaving the hospital within 48 hours with little or no support at home.

Many Cultures Provide Labor and Postpartum Support

In contrast, in many other cultures, there are definite postpartum rituals that go into effect once a woman has given birth. These typically last for two to six weeks after birth and include special foods, drinks, bathing rituals, and relief from normal household and child-care responsibilities. What is the the result? Mothers in these cultures are more successful at nursing their infants and experience little to no postpartum depression in comparison to our modern, American culture.

The reality of giving birth in our culture is quite different. A new mother barely has time to absorb the basics of baby care and nursing before she is sent home from the hospital. Many women desire to breastfeed their babies, but the reality of the first weeks of nursing can cause an isolated mom to give in to the ‘ease’ of the bottle. How does one learn if there is no one to teach and support her through the first difficult weeks? The doula can meet this need.

There is also the reality of a mother’s other household responsibilities. These demands don’t cease because she has a baby.

While one can go without doing some chores for a day or two, by the third day, laundry, shopping needs, and a deteriorating home are hard to ignore. Instructions given to a new mom such as “Rest!”, “Relax!”, “Sleep when the baby sleeps!” are next to impossible to follow if one has no support.

Add a few siblings into the picture and you have the recipe for an overwhelmed, frustrated mother who begins to feel that she is failing during a period of her life that should bring her joy. Ancient solution to this modern problem – A Postpartum Doula.

The Responsibilities Of A Doula

The doula can help the family ease through the adjustments and the changes a new baby brings by emotionally and physically helping the family during the postpartum period. She is not a baby-nurse, R.N., or a home-health aide.

She is a non-medical, specialized support person who, rather than take over baby care, offers instruction in newborn care and breast-feeding. A doula will care for the baby so the mom can catch up on her sleep. She will also give the mom time to get to know her baby while the doula brings the new mom meals and drinks, helps to feed and occupy the other children, goes to the store, runs the laundry, starts dinner for the whole family, and helps to keep the house neat.

An Overnight Doula supports the mom by caring for the baby through the night allowing the mom to sleep. For some new mothers a lack of sleep increases depression and anxiety.

Find The Support You Need In A Postpartum Doula

“A mother’s job for the first two weeks after birth is to stay in one place and nurse her baby,” states Christie Flynn, R.N. and Certified Lactation Consultant in New Haven, CT. “Ideally, she should be relieved of her regular responsibilities and focus on her recovery and her new baby.”

In “Mothering the New Mother”, Sally Plackson writes, “Paying attention to and respecting those needs of the early postpartum weeks at home do not make you a weak or self-indulgent mother. They don’t make you a wimp”. What a revolutionary thought in a culture where many women have adopted the notion that to ask for help would be a sign of weakness! It is wisdom to recognize the normal limitations of this period.

Some women are still able to come home from the hospital into the arms of a supportive mother or friend but it is rare today as most women’s family and friends work fulltime. A professional postpartum doula from MothersCare Doula Services is a good alternative. A professional doula supports without judgement. She is experienced without being pushy. She will do whatever is needed to increase the joy a new baby bring into a family and decrease the stress and anxiety that often also ensues.

Be practical when planning for the postpartum period. Remember, all women physically and emotionally need and deserve a modern day “slave”, the Doula.

About Susan Shepard

I am the owner/partner of MothersCare Doula Services in CT. I am a Postpartum doula and my business partner, Sheila Marley is a Labor doula. MothersCare places both Labor and Postpartum doulas with CT Families. I am the mom of five beautiful children, one set of twins. The best quote for me as a young mother and the catalyst for MothersCare is “It’s not weakness to know you need help, it’s wisdom.”


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