A birth doula teaches and supports expectant women during pregnancy and childbirth, but have you heard of a postpartum doula?

When she was 32 weeks pregnant with her first child, Hilary Young of Philadelphia hired a postpartum doula, a professionally trained woman who teaches and supports moms during the “fourth trimester” when it’s common for moms to feel insecure and overwhelmed as they try to adapt to motherhood.

The decision was a no-brainer for Young, especially since this was the first child for Young and her husband.

“When we first met, she told me her goal was to make me feel so confident about my abilities as a mother that I won’t need her,” Young recalled.

So for 15 hours over five weeks, Young’s doula helped her with baby wearing, the first bath and breastfeeding. And much like a good friend might do, the doula cared for Hilary’s daughter so she could take a shower, introduced her to other moms in the area and provided much-needed emotional support and encouragement.

Although Young ended up needing the doula less than she anticipated, the support she provided was invaluable.

“She was so complimentary of me as a mom,” Young said. “There’s so much going on when a baby is born that it’s not like someone is always standing over you saying, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ Just for that alone, I’m very grateful.”

What is a postpartum doula?
After giving birth, moms spend just a few days in the hospital where they have access to round-the-clock nurses and lactation consultants who educate and support them. Once home, some may be lucky enough to have a partner who can take time off from work or a mother who can help out.

Yet for most families, that help starts to wane within weeks. A postpartum doula can help to fill that void.

“We’re there in the beginning to help keep the family in balance,” said Barbara Heid, a DONA-certified birth and postpartum doula in Doylestown, Pa.

Research shows that moms who are cared for and supported after having a baby are more likely to feel confident, have a lower incidence of postpartum depression and more success with breastfeeding.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing found that postpartum doulas can positively impact a mother’s competence and responsiveness to her baby.

Although a postpartum doula’s role is to educate, provide support and companionship and nurture the new family, the specific duties can vary depending on each family’s needs.

For example, they can help parents make sense of the latest research and recommendations on infant care, teach them ways to soothe a crying baby or help older siblings feel included.

“A postpartum doula will come into their family and really help them understand how they want to parent,” said HeatherGail Lovejoy, a Silicon Valley-based certified postpartum doula, postpartum doula trainer and president-elect of doula organization DONA International.

Unlike a baby nurse, postpartum doulas help care for babies, moms and the entire family. They may help moms recovering from a cesarean section, set up a sitz bath for those healing from perineal tears or make sure they’re resting when they can.

Postpartum doulas can also help with normal breast-feeding challenges or make a referral to a certified lactation consultant, if they are not certified themselves.

A doula may also prepare simple meals, run errands, and do laundry.

“We can lighten the load a little bit so they can have a little more time getting to know their babies and bond,” Heid said.

Postpartum doulas also screen women for postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression, which affects one in seven moms, according to a study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.  Or they can simply offer emotional support when hormones and emotions tend to run high.

Unlike a mother-in-law, who may offer up unsolicited advice, a postpartum doula offers moms evidence-based information but never judges the family’s choices or tells them how to parent, Heid said.

Rates for postpartum doula services vary by region and can range between $25 and $50 or more per hour. Moms considering a postpartum doula should look for those who are certified by local, regional and international organizations that offer programs.  

Bringing home a new baby is a joyous event but it can be stressful for new and experienced families alike. Having a support system however, can make all the difference.

“They can get off to a wonderful start and that’s what we’re always hoping for,” Heid said. “But we’re there in case it doesn’t happen that way.”

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.