The word “doula” comes from the Greek for “woman’s servant.” These days, doulas support people of all genders as they navigate life’s most precious transitions. As a postpartum doula, Meredith Swierczynski specialize in caring for families following the birth of their new baby.
We had the opportunity to ask Meredith about her important calling, and she shared not only her inspiration for becoming certified but also gave us some tips for new parents on working with a doula.
FunTastic Media: Please explain what the different kinds of doulas do, and why you chose to specialize in post-partum.
Meredith Swierczynski: There are many different types of doulas–birth, postpartum, death, also-adoption, abortion and miscarriage. I’ve chosen to focus my work on the weeks following the birth of baby. A postpartum doula offers non-judgmental support to a birthing person, their partner and family. We offer evidence-based information and support-such as sleep support, helping parents understand how a baby sleeps, breast or chest feeding support, and, most importantly, emotional support. Becoming a parent is hard, there are so many expectations and in the age of social media, there’s the stress to show your life looking perfect for Instagram. I find part of a doulas job is simply reminding parents that nothing is ever perfect, their life is perfectly imperfect and there’s so much beauty in that. I do spend a lot of time reminding parents it’s okay to hate the moment because being sleep deprived, un-showered, hungry and sore is normal and it isn’t always pretty but love the experience of being a parent. Doulas do not offer medical advice or diagnose any medical conditions. We do encourage parents to reach out to doctors, lactation consultants and other experts when they are feeling the need for expert advice. It’s our job to empower parents to trust themselves and help them find the help they need. It isn’t our place to tell them what to do or how to do it.
Q: What is the biggest challenge new parents face in the first two weeks?
MS: Becoming a new parent is full of stress and uncertainty.
Speaking first for myself, when I became a parent 19 years ago, I was an educated woman, had experience working with babies and children and I thought I was ready-becoming a mother was the one thing I wanted more than anything-and yet, when they handed me that baby, screaming, red faced and angry, I was sure I had NO IDEA what I was doing and I was terrified. Our son cried, all the time. He had colic, I struggled with breastfeeding, and I’d had a surgical birth, so I was also dealing with the recovery from that. My husband and I were overwhelmed, to say the least and we didn’t feel supported by anyone.
I think, the biggest challenge for new parents is realizing that sleep and whatever you did “before” baby is no longer possible. Your sleep is completely determined by the baby who needs to be fed every two hours those first two weeks, especially if baby is being breast/chest fed and that lack of sleep is very hard to manage. For reference-breastfeeding newborns feed, on average, 10–12 times in a 24 hr. period. Formula fed infants feed 8–12 times in a 24 hr. period.
My job as a postpartum doula is to help parents sleep, and do those things they loved doing before Baby arrived. One of the fathers I worked with recently loved to run, so every day I’d ask “do you need to go for a run today?” We created a schedule that allowed him to run, because running help him manage his stress, anxiety and depression. It’s our job to keep track of both mom (birthing person) and their partner and encourage them to do those self - care things which help keep them sane.
Q: What is the most wonderful surprise most new parents experience?
MS: For most parents, simply meeting baby is joyous... you’ve gotten to know this little person for 40 weeks, you’ve talked to and dreamed about this little person and when they are placed in your arms nothing compares. I think this experience is true for parents who adopted a child or birthed baby.
Also, witnessing a parent discover they are good at parenting their baby is pretty incredible. It’s really challenging to suddenly find yourself completely responsible for another living thing and when you realize you’ve figured it out, even if it’s only for one day, it feels like you’ve won the lottery. For a doula, watching our clients become capable, strong, confident parents is the most rewarding part of the job.
Q: What are new moms most anxious about, and how do you help t hem handle it?
MS: New parents are anxious about a lot; some have physical health concerns, some have mental health concerns, and some are simply concerned about getting some sleep, getting a shower and eating a meal. As a doula, we offer support for all of those concerns.
Recently, I worked with a family who had the very real fear of preeclampsia–mom had a very traumatic birth experience with their first child, developed an infection and pre-eclampsia and needed to be re-hospitalized after baby came home. She and her partner were both concerned this would happen again with their second baby. And, unfortunately it did. Thankfully she did not develop an infection, but she did develop preeclampsia and was re-hospitalized for a few days. I was able to increase my hours with the family and helped her partner keep everything running at home, which helped mom remain calm and get well.
Another family I worked with had a baby with tongue tie (Tongue-tie (ankyloglossia) is a problem with the tongue that is pre sent from birth. It causes speech and eating problems in some children. The frenulum of the tongue is a small fold of tissue that reaches from the floor of the mouth to the underside of the tongue). This was their third baby and mom suspected the issue from the get-go. My job was not to diagnose or even tell her how to proceed, but to support her with every decision she made. I encouraged her to seek help from the lactation consultant, pediatrician and specialists. She really didn’t need my help, she knew what to do, she just needed encouragement from a doula, reminding her she knew what steps to take. Giving birth is hard work and families need to be supported through all of it.
Q: How does your job work... are you live - in, or only there for certain hours?
MS: I am a daytime doula. That means I help families during daytime hours, I do not live in with the family. Typically, I have a set schedule but I’m flexible and will work with the family as I learn their needs. I’ve had families who’ve contracted with me for just a few hours per week and after baby arrives, they realize they need much more support. I’m happy to be there for them, to support them in whatever ways they need.
There are two types of postpartum doulas-daytime and nighttime. A daytime doula will take care of things like cooking, laundry, running errands, changing bed linens, organizing–often whatever a family needs, as well as hands on help with baby. Being able to cook meals and leave food in the refrigerator is so important. It’s hard to think about eating when you are exhausted. When I’m working with a family, I always make sure to suggest they sit down and eat while I’m there so I can hold Baby while they eat, also, so I know they ate a wholesome meal while I was there. I try to go to a different room, so they can sit together and talk without the worry of baby crying.
I’m very good at walking into a home and seeing what needs my attention. Then, while I’m with the family, I will do what I can to organize, so that when I leave, they ca n manage a schedule and their home without me. Daytime doulas are an extra set of hands to manage all of the household stuff that falls through the cracks when parents are focused on their new baby.
As the name suggests, a nighttime doula works through the night. She helps with feedings during the night. She’ll manage the diaper changes between feedings, hold and burp baby after feedings and allow parents to sleep. Nighttime doulas will also do some light tidying-wash bottles and pump supplies, possibly laundry–if it isn’t too loud and, if baby is bottle fed, she’ll prepare bottles for the next day.
Sleep is essential to recovery and whether a baby arrives via vaginal birth or surgical birth, a birthing person’s body needs time to recover. Having a nighttime doula means parents get a bit more sleep because she’ll handle the heavy lifting during the nighttime hours. Having a nighttime doula generally means partner is able to get a full night sleep, which is great because it means they’ll feel up to managing some of the care during the day.
The biggest difference between daytime and nighttime doula–daytime doulas manage more of the day to day household chores, but both daytime and nighttime doulas are able to help with breast/chest feeding, bottle feed ing and answer questions about a newborn.
Q: Did you have a doula when your children were born?
MS: Unfortunately, no, we did not have a doula. Truth be told, I didn’t know what a doula was or did until about four years ago. I’d been working with a family, as their babysitter, and when our time together was ending, mom said to me ... “you know, Meredith, you are truly a postpartum doula”. I had no idea what she’d said. I went home and looked it up and decided to do the training.
Q: What is the thing you love most about being a doula?
MS: I have always loved babies and I love taking care of people. The feeling of satisfaction I get when I am leaving a family knowing they are okay and ready to be on their own is amazing. Every family is unique and has their own unique needs, what might work for one family, won’t always work for another and being able to see what they need and give it to them is a special gift. I think the longer a doula works with families, the better they are at that skill.
I often felt like I didn’t know what I was doing as a young mother and I didn’t have many people around me reminding me that I did, in fact, know my babies and their needs. So as a doula, I make it part of my job to remind parents, all the time, that they are doing a great job with their baby and they are the only ones who really “know” what’s right. Family, friends, doulas, can make suggestions, but at the end of the day, parents have to trust themselves to just know. I enjoy being able to help parents find the confidence to parent their babies the way that’s right for them.
Get it touch with Meredith through her website: https://buildingthebonddoula.com/