Raise your hand if you are familiar with the term birth doula. Yep, lots of us know about doulas and probably many of you had one at your side during labor. But have you ever heard about a postpartum doula (also called a night doula)? Nighttime is extremely difficult after you bring your baby home and a night doula helps those who have given birth, their partners, and adoptive parents adjust to this major transition (also known as the 4th trimester). I wish I would have known about a night doula 5 years ago when I had my daughter; had I known about the benefits of hiring a night doula, my mental health wouldn’t have suffered nearly as much.
I recently chatted with Brittany Bolden, a Postpartum Certified Doula (PCD), and mom to 6 children of her own. Brittany shared what a night doula is and why new moms should seriously consider adding this expert level support and care to their baby shower registry.
What is a night doula?
Brittany: There are three different types of helpers postpartum:
- Night nurse: For babies who have been in the NICU and need medical care.
- Newborn care specialist: Focuses on the baby. How many ounces are they eating? How long are they breastfeeding? What is their weight? What sleep patterns are forming?
- Postpartum doula (aka, Night Doula): The night doula is trained to look at the big picture, meaning how is the home environment, how is mom, how is the partner? The night doula still checks for how many ounces, is the baby thriving, how is breastfeeding going – but it’s taking a macro look at the entire picture, with a big emphasis on the mother. The night doula helps take care of the baby so mom can rest.
What are the benefits of having a night doula?
Brittany: Wow, there are so many benefits. First of all – sleep! Our job as a night doula is to ensure Mom sleeps. A lot of people think they can’t have a doula if they are breastfeeding – but really, Mom can. When I work with a mother who is breastfeeding, my focus is helping her get rest. This means I don’t even have her get out of bed in the middle of the night. So when Mom wakes up enough to feed the baby, I bring the baby to her, she doesn’t have to get out of bed, she doesn’t fully wake up – she can breastfeed and stay sleepy. I then take the baby, and Mom can go right back to sleep. This helps Mom maximize her sleep, because the baby could stay awake for another hour or hour-and-a-half.
I get the baby changed, burped, and anything else the baby needs, all with the goal of maximizing Mom’s sleep. If Mom can get at least 5 hours of sleep, that wards off a lot of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. Another main benefit is that I am helping Mom find her way as a mother. I do a lot of listening and letting Mom talk through whatever she is going through; I provide a lot of emotional support. At 3 a.m., I’m up with Mom and often find myself saying, “This is all normal.” I normalize a lot for them, I let them talk about their worries, and I help guide them to figure out how they want to be a mom. Rather than telling them, “This is what you should do” I might say, “What feels right for you?” My goal is to help them become confident as a mom, so when I leave, they have confidence in their new role.
How long does a family typically contract with a night doula?
Brittany: I have two types of clients. First, this client saves money for this service and budgets for it, or maybe they were given this service as a gift. Typically, this type of service runs for 6 weeks and they could schedule me for maybe three times a week, every other day. This is to give Mom a break and she can tell herself, “I can get through today because I have my doula coming tomorrow.”
Alternatively, I have clients who book me for 3-4 months at a time, 5 to 7 days each week. The clients’ circumstances really determine which level of service they need. For instance, there may be a history of postpartum depression from a previous birth, maybe the mom has multiple children or toddlers in the home and needs sleep, maybe their partner travels a lot or doesn’t have a flexible work schedule, or their extended family members are unable to come help.
What is the 4th trimester?
Brittany: The 4th trimester is the three months after the birth of a child – a continuation of the pregnancy and birth experience. This is the period of time when a night doula is needed and we play an essential role in helping the new family adjust from the pregnancy and birth phases to being home with the newborn and finding a new rhythm. The purpose of acknowledging this phase is to focus on taking care of Mom and her partner. As doulas, we study how other countries attend to pregnancies and the postpartum period. The unfortunate fact is that the United States is one of the few countries that does not focus on the postpartum period; we do a lot of education around pregnancy, but postpartum is really where we need to put the work in.
What are common struggles you see new parents have?
Brittany: There are so many struggles. Sleep-deprivation is a huge one. Also, this is a time when couples disconnect. The mom often leans on me during this time, so I normalize the hardships the mom is facing, and I find myself also helping the partner, teaching them how to help mom. Many times the partner wants to help, but it isn’t going well. The partner will come to me saying, “I just don’t know what to do,” and I’m able to share ways they can help, such as physically helping mom. Take breastfeeding as an example. Moms can struggle with their milk supply and it’s helpful to normalize when a new mother’s body does not automatically know what to do. This is when I’ll spend some time educating their partner on how to help: positioning the baby in a certain way and saying something encouraging. Or I help moms decide that they aren’t going to breastfeed. I find myself telling moms, “It’s okay you aren’t going to breastfeed. Your baby will bond to you no matter what.” No one else is telling them that. It’s so often that moms need to hear me say, “It’s okay.” They just need a lot of support.
FD: I can imagine for a lot of families, perhaps either partner, this is the first time they experience feeling inadequate. There might be a highly successful couple in their jobs, they have a baby, and perhaps for the first time really struggle – they “should” be able to [do whatever] because it looks easy based on videos or books but then it doesn’t go that way. How common is it for you to witness couples experience conflict during this time?
Brittany: This happens a lot. It’s not uncommon for couples to feel an increase in stress, anxiety, resentment, and disconnection during the 4th trimester. I work with a lot of moms who, prior to the baby, were working full-time; they felt successful in their role as an employee, but no longer feel productive and confident. Once the baby arrives, they feel less confident, feel more stress, and oftentimes resent their partner for a variety of issues (like going back to work, getting a good night’s sleep) and jealousy comes up. Without a healthy way to talk about their new feelings, disconnection forms and conflict is more likely to happen. It’s important for couples to talk regularly during this time because conflict and negative energy in their relationship can impact the development of the newborn; newborns feel the energy in the home and it impacts their ability to latch, sleep, and learn their environment is safe and predictable.
FD: You talked about heterosexual couples, have you noticed similarities or differences when it comes to same-sex couples?
Brittany: In my experience, same-sex couples tend to manage this transition more smoothly. Especially if it is two women, they seem to understand the emotional aspect of it a little bit better and they give each other a bit more empathy. For instance, as a woman partner, she can more easily imagine how it feels to have her body transform, feel like a stranger in her-own-skin, and have a lot of emotions shift from one moment to the next.
If a grandparent-to-be were to give something to the parents-to-be what would be the most useful gifts that you’d recommend?
Brittany: Postpartum doula services! It is a fantastic gift! The first time I ever heard of it was when my friend gave this service as a gift. It might feel a bit strange letting someone who isn’t family into your home and into your personal space, but I have seen moms breathe in a sigh of relief because they can feel stress alleviated pretty immediately, especially if they get sleep and rest, which their bodies so badly need.
The next one seems so small, but there are 5 S’s to soothe the baby: one of those is shushing. There is this little orange device that you turn on and it shushes – you can put it in the crib and it is a game changer.
Another big item is a Snoo – a bassinet that rocks the baby to sleep. I might not even have a job one day because this works so well! They are super expensive, but they are starting to become rentable – and since the baby only sleeps in a bassinet for a short time, renting is a great option.
Last, anything that can help a couple postpartum makes a great gift. I’m a big promoter of the Transition to Parenting program, new parents can go through the 12 customized lessons to get an idea of what life will look like once they have a baby. Other postpartum items are gift certificates for date nights or offering babysitting services.
Want more support? Is your mental health suffering?
Are you having a difficult transition to motherhood and need support? Therapy can help. If you’re curious how therapy can help you and your partner adjust to your new roles and schedule in a way that strengthens your connection with one another, find a therapist near you. I’m a therapist in AZ and my practice specializes in relationship health—you can find me here.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.