In light of World Doula Week, Latham Thomas shares what it’s like to support parents-to-be
World Doula Week runs from March 22 to March 28th annually, right in line with the Spring Equinox — a universal symbol of fertility. Doulas offer vital emotional support to moms-to-be at birth and have been tied to better outcomes for both birthing parents and their babies. They advocate alongside their clients throughout the birth process. They are growing in popularity in the U.S., which is fitting given the nation’s maternal health crisis.
Even before Covid-19, in the U.S, an estimated two women die each day from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. Tragically, 60% of those deaths are preventable. And Women of Color are often even worse off: Black women are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than are white women.
To honor the important work of doulas, and to learn more about what they do, we reached out to Latham Thomas, with some help from our friends at Sleep Number. Thomas is the founder of Mama Glow and a doula who has supported celebrities like Alicia Keys through birth and postpartum. Thomas runs a global doula training program and advocates for better policies for birthing parents in the U.S.
She weighs in on what it’s like to forge emotional connections with her clients and how she rests and recovers after late-nights on the job…
KCM: What exactly is a doula and why would a parent-to-be want one?
Latham Thomas: Doulas are non-clinical care providers who offer emotional and physical support, education and advocacy for parents-to-be. They help people navigate the experience of pregnancy and labor. This is actually an ancient profession! And the role has evolved over time.
An important thing to note is that you don’t have a doula in lieu of a doctor. You always have a doctor or a midwife as a clinical provider to deliver a baby. Doulas do everything that’s non-clinical, like making sure that you feel safe, understand the procedures and have the right things to set the mood in the room.
With the maternal health crisis in the U.S., now, more than ever, parents need doulas to help them navigate this experience. The U.S. is one of the most dangerous places in the developed world to give birth. People are nervous about what will happen when they go to deliver their babies. And you want to alleviate fear, educate people and provide them with the best options possible to move forward with their birth experience.
If someone’s having a planned C-section, a doula can help people put systems in place to navigate the postpartum and recovery period. Once the baby arrives, we can make sure folks have food waiting for them when they get home. We help to keep the community connected.
Speaking of this maternal mortality crisis, Black Women are disproportionately impacted. Why is it extra important for them to have this support, especially when they’re facing all these systems that have consistently worked against them?
I would say patient-centric models, that are culturally competent, are critically important. Having a doula present can be life-affirming, but in some instances, it can be lifesaving.
The type of support and advocacy tools that you get from your doula can really impact the course of your labor. Not that we are doing any clinical work, but there are instances where we’re able to troubleshoot things that people’s doctors miss, and put it on their radar. By being present, you can disrupt some of the ways the system functions that’s in congruent with the outcomes and desires of the clients.
Additionally, finding a midwife or a doula that is BIPOC, or having someone who is trained in a methodology that is informed so that they can go in and work with different populations, can be very important for folks who are impacted by racism and oppression.
Could you give some examples of what type of emotional support you provide? How do you forge these connections with your clients?
It’s such a charged experience. Giving birth is a life experience that many people would say is the most emotionally charged of their lives and it’s life-changing. When you’re on that journey with people, it becomes a very emotional experience.
One thing that’s really critically important is to develop trust. You have to get them to let their guard down and connect with you. Generally, people start to speak to a doula when they’re halfway through the pregnancy, so we meet several times over about a 20-week period.
Doulas do tend to develop really great relationships with their clients because they’re spending so much time together and we are with clients at their most vulnerable moments. We’re usually communicating frequently, and now, there’s even the option of virtual doulas.
How has your work changed due to the pandemic?
I lead a global doula training program, I teach mostly and advance our work with policymakers to ensure safety and better birth outcomes for people in the United States. The biggest shift in my work is that it has moved completely online.
We’re still going to the homes and delivery rooms, wearing PPE. Aside from protective equipment, we’re pretty much doing the same things with increased safety measures.
What does your night look like when you have to wake up for a delivery?
Labor usually kicks in at night because of the hormones involved. Melatonin, which regulates dreaming and helps us to stay asleep, is produced in greater quantity at night. So is the hormone oxytocin, which causes uterine contractions, initiating labor. These hormones work together to create more efficient contractions, so labor usually starts at night for most people.
When I get calls in the middle of the night, it’s not necessarily a rush. There is a misconception about birth, that it’s really fast and rushed. There are experiences like that, but for the most part, it’s slow and patterned. When someone’s water breaks, it could be 12 to 18 hours or even longer before the baby comes. When we do get a phone call, you’re really monitoring them from home as long as it feels comfortable, and then going to meet them at their home, hospital or birth center.
When you’re waking up late at night, why is rest and recovery so important? How do you make sure you get enough sleep?
Sleep and recovery go hand in hand for doulas. A big piece of the work is centered around self-care and being able to optimize rest is really important. Sleep also helps to improve your cognitive function, immune system, your mood, and overall health.
So when you go to a birth, if you are gone for 24 hours, you want to be resting for the next 24 hours. You want to be getting a good night’s sleep and not really planning an active day the following day, so that you can catch up on the rest that you lost. I often unwind after busy periods by curling up in my Sleep Number 360® smart bed, and reading or journaling. Sometimes I’ll also meditate and stretch a bit, to allow myself to recover and decompress before I go to sleep.
I actually had two births recently in one week. So having all that activity was quite a lot. After that busy period, even though I got a good night’s sleep, and woke up and felt great, I allowed myself to just still relax and lounge in bed. As doulas and caregivers, it’s important to take care of ourselves the way we encourage our clients to rest after birth.
Lastly, what is most rewarding to you about being a doula?
I think the most rewarding thing about the experience is watching people evolve from being single or a couple, to becoming new parents and seeing how they really rise into this new version of themselves. Seeing them meet their new baby is a blessing. I love watching the transformation!
Written and reported by weekend editor Amanda Svachula.