Reason #2: The Five Minutes You Will Remember Forever if You Don’t Have a Doula
Some pregnant couples hire me and I know throughout the pregnancy that I have been a valuable resource to them. Others hire me and I don’t do much during the pregnancy, but I play a crucial role during labor. And still others hire me and I do very little for them during pregnancy or labor. They are well-informed, well-prepared, and labor goes smoothly. Mom and her partner are tucked away in a private world I can barely touch. I am basically superfluous.
Yet sometimes even these couples get their money’s worth from hiring a doula. They can get hundreds of dollars of value in just five minutes. I have learned over time that one of my most valuable gifts to new parents in a hospital setting (and even, once, at a homebirth) is the connection I can facilitate between mother and newborn in the first five minutes of the baby’s life. Unfortunately, at many hospital births, no matter how natural labor might have been and no matter how dedicated to natural birth the parents might be, babies are often whisked away from the birth canal straight to a warming bed across the room. Sometimes the reasons for this are clear (such as the presence of the baby’s first poop, called meconium, during labor, which must be prevented from entering the baby’s lungs) and sometimes the reasons are not at all clear. The problem, however, is that the new parents are virtually powerless. Worse, they are scared.
That’s what I mean by the “five minutes you might remember forever if you don’t have a doula.” Because when babies get taken across the room to be “worked on,” usually there is no explanation given but there is a ton of fear. All medical attention in the room is on the baby, the mother’s uterus, and the mother’s perineal area (managing the birth of the placenta, getting ready for stitches, etc.). Because the nurses and neonatal team may intend to keep the baby only for a few minutes, they do not think about how those five minutes feel to the new mother. The nurses and doctors are extremely busy in those minutes: measuring, assessing, rubbing, using a syringe or other tools to clear airways, etc. These professionals are probably experiencing time as rushed. The new mother, across the room, however, is likely experiencing time in quite the opposite way. For her, these moments after hours of contractions and pushing feel like openings onto eternity. If she does not hear her baby cry and see her baby move, she can panic. Those five minutes can be full of the worst fears of her lifetime: her baby has been born dead. Mutated. Not human. She will never hold this baby alive. If there is silence, she may hope for the best, but some animal part of her that is supposed to be soothed by touching her newborn will pull up the ancient fears of death-at-birth.
Knocking on wood, all of the babies I have watched wiggle into this world have been born alive. But many of them needed some help in the first few minutes to adjust to breathing air, pumping blood through their hearts, and feeling comfortable in our world.
So, in those critical first five minutes, I have given myself the task of narrating the baby’s life to the mother. If the baby is taken away from Mama, I stand somewhere in between the two and relay details of what I see. “Oh, I see your baby’s feet kicking! Oh, this baby looks mad that these nurses are cleaning him off!” I say. Or “Oh, your baby is so beautiful! She has so much gorgeous hair (or she hardly has any hair, but I think it’s brown).” Or “You probably can’t hear him, but your baby is making some noise over here! He has something to say about what’s going on.” Anything. Anything at all. Anything concrete about this new child. I try to convey a sense that this baby is here, this baby is alive, this baby is a person.
This fulfills two purposes simultaneously. I do this narration for the mother, so she can focus on the details I am describing and not on her fears. She may, this way, avoid the worst five minutes of her life, worrying needlessly that her baby is not all right. Secondarily, this narration affects the hospital staff. It reminds them that the mother is waiting, WAITING!, for her baby, and that getting the baby back to the mother is of utmost importance. I like to believe that this narration — this reminder that a human mother is waiting to meet her new child — helps the staff put off the unnecessary tasks (like weighing the baby, washing the baby’s skin more thoroughly) until later. If the baby’s life is not in critical danger, s/he belongs with Mama. Everything else can be done on her chest or it can be delayed.
I have found this process to be equally helpful whether I am attending a vaginal birth or cesarean birth. If I cannot be in the room at a c-section, I often pull the father/partner aside and suggest this idea. The new mother on an operating table can feel even more helpless, even more scared about how her baby is. She needs instant reassurance that her baby is real, her baby is here, and she will touch her baby soon.
As doulas, we can sometimes prevent babies from being taken away from their mothers in the first moments of life. But we can always, always commit to narrating this time. Most of the time, doulas do a lot of important work prenatally and during labor. But I think we can earn our keep, even if this is practically all we do. Have you ever been in this situation?