Did you know the role of a doula was discovered by accident when doctors were conducting research on breastfeeding? What is even more intriguing is knowing the accidental doula did not offer any physical support during labour, she simply spoke kindly when interacting with the birthing women.
The task of recruiting mothers into the breastfeeding study* was given to a female research assistant. She would enter the room to ask the labouring women if they would like to participate, always approaching the mothers in a gentle, compassionate way, but not offering any physical support.
Surprisingly the length of labour became shorter, with new mothersreporting strong feelings of connection with their baby immediately following birth. The research, which originally focused on breastfeeding and bonding, had led to discovering the power of a birth doula.
A further study took place, where a ‘doula’ was placed discreetly in the room, but was not involved in any way with the labouring woman, all she did was come out from behind a screen to note down when another person (nurse or midwife) came into the room.
Afterwards the mothers said “I felt that somebody cared about me. It felt so good having somebody who was interested in me in the room”. New fathers said “thank god we had a doula!”. The mothers also felt a strong emotional bond with their newborn baby. The researched showed that simply by having someone in the room, not offering any physical support, made a difference to mothers, shortened the length of labour and improved caesarean birth statistics.
What can we learn from the ‘no talk, no touch’ doula today?
A new mother shared her home birth experience, where a doctor provided back-up to the homebirth midwives, saying “He did nothing, just sat in the corner”. My response: “That’s perfect!” meaning his quiet presence was all that was needed to reassure the labouring mother that all was well. In a hospital setting, doctors and midwives could learn from this non-interventional approach, without jumping in to medically manage births when unnecessary.
Throughout recent years doulas were challenged to navigate new COVID-19 restrictions being placed on birthing women, such as the ‘Ban on the use of Water in Labour’ put in place in Victorian hospitals, regardless that COVID-19 is not a waterborne virus (thankfully this was lifted following a response from the Australian College of Midwives). We must use all our doula skills to best prepare women and their partners for birthing, supporting with loving care and calm reassurance (including virtual support during labour), providing the guidance to make the right choices. We must trust that ‘less is more’ and believe in the mother’s own instinctual ability to give birth, as women have done for centuries.
As a doula supporting births, I am always encouraged when the midwife sits quietly, perhaps knitting, witnessing and trusting the mother in her own process of birthing. Stepping forward only when reassurance or physical support are needed, perhaps offering calm words of guidance… this is undisturbed birth in its true sense.
Anna Watts is the founder of Celebration of Birth Doula Academy. She is a Sacred Birth Educator, Doula Trainer, Counsellor and Spiritual Healer. The Academy offers Sacred Birth Doula and Postnatal Doula trainings for both new and experienced doulas to explore birth as a journey of transformation and healing. The online Chakra Birthing Wisdom programme is a self-paced journey through the chakras and their relationship with pregnancy and birth.
* In 1976, Dr Marshall Klaus and Dr John Kennell published the research “Maternal-Infant Bonding” concluding that a mother’s attachment to her baby is stronger if able to bond in the first few hours after birth. They went on to write The Doula Book, together with co-author Phyllis Klaus, originally and perhaps more appropriately named ‘Mothering the Mother’.