The Year Of The Doula

Why the isolation of the pandemic teamed with a rising celebrity trend has seen the ancient role of birthkeeper return to the fore.

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by Lauren Milligan |

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It’s a universal truth that birth is a life-changing moment in anyone’s life. Not only does a new baby make their debut into the world, but for first-time parents they are born too - finding themselves instantly cast in a new role that they often feel ill-prepared for. Now growing numbers of parents in the UK - and celebrities across the world - are searching for support from a new source, but one with ancient resonance.

A doula is a trained, non-medical support person who offers informational, emotional, and physical support in pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period. Across the world, all ancient societies approached birth in this way. Women, often those who had already had children, would support parents to prepare for their baby’s arrival, stay with them through labour, and help them learn how to care for their new baby in the early weeks and months.

“The support that a doula provides is really helpful, especially for a first-time mum,” explains Megan Arkan, an American who moved to London for work, along with her husband, Erol. “Our doula had several meetings with us during the pregnancy to ensure we understood the physical and emotional aspects of birth and helped us prepare our birth preferences. She also really helped in the last few weeks of the pregnancy with keeping me calm and reassured. During the birth, she helped me through the surges with words of encouragement, massage, and essential oils. I was able to achieve an unmedicated natural birth and I truly believe I was only able to do so with the support and encouragement I received from our doula. Postnatally, she provided emotional support and helped connect me with resources to assist with issues I was having - like breastfeeding.”

And Megan is by no means alone in enlisting a doula this year. Searches for both birth and postnatal doulas have greatly increased during the pandemic, with The Doula Directory - a search engine for doulas across the country and beyond - seeing an increase of more than 50% over the past year. And most doulas report being busier than ever. “We used to receive 3 or 4 enquiries a week,” birth and postnatal doula Louise Oliver says. “Now it’s more than that most days. Some people just want to find out more information initially, but the awareness of doulas has definitely increased.”

Part of the reason for the lift is the openness of celebrities who choose to work with doulas for their births and postnatally. Over the past decade, stars including Christy Turlington, Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba, Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, January Jones, Nicole Kidman, Doutzen Kroes, Alicia Keys, Amy Schumer, Ashley Tisdale, Mandy Moore, and Mila Kunis have worked with doulas and shared their experience. Most recently, models Gigi Hadid and Elsa Hosk shared the positive impact their doula had on their births, and Meghan Markle reportedly became the first royal to work with a doula when baby Archie arrived in 2019.

Aside from the celebrity endorsement, the isolation caused by the pandemic has been the deciding factor for many families in looking for outside help. Someone to meet for a gentle walk or Zoom chat when those final weeks start to play tricks on you and make you think your baby might never come (“longest human pregnancy in history” is a common Google search during week 41); someone to rub your back through one more contraction and remind you that you can do anything for one minute; someone to make you restorative soup and hold your baby while you eat it or finally shower; or just someone to tell you that what you’re feeling is normal: new parents have found themselves without the usual support from parents, siblings or friends - and doulas have been filling that gap. “Being pregnant and isolated by lockdown does take its toll on your mental health,” Mia Sahin, who gave birth during the height of the second peak in January, says, “and having a doula - and specifically the right doula - helped me stay sane and feel connected.” Those whose families are nearby are now growing increasingly hopeful that as the lockdown eases they will be able to have their support again soon, but for those who have family in Europe or particularly the US, the uncertainty surrounding travel restrictions means doulas are a lifeline.

Fortunately, many American ex-pats looking for support here have already heard of doulas since their prevalence and availability there is far ahead of the UK. There are several doulas who’ve become household names in the US after supporting a host of famous clients: Lori Bregman (Jessica Biel, Kirsten Bell, Molly Sims, Kelly Rowland, Heidi Klum, Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson), Carson Meyer (Gigi Hadid, Elsa Hosk, Mandy Moore), and Latham Thomas (Doutzen Kroes, Tamera Lowry) among others, have Instagram followings almost as impressive as their client lists. Last month, British actress Daisy Ridley told Graham Norton that she’d used the break in filming caused by the pandemic to train as a doula, following in the footsteps of presenter Ricki Lake, actress and singer Domino Kirke, and singer-songwriter Erykah Badu who have found the lure of birth support appealing as a second career.

“Birthing people and the healthcare providers who support them have faced such difficult times during the pandemic,” Kicki Hansard, CEO of The Doula Association, says. “Having to navigate attending scans and in some cases the early part of labour alone, and managing without their loved ones in the early weeks of their new baby’s life has been so difficult - never mind the months that followed. But if there’s one silver lining it’s that so many people have learned what a doula is when the help they’d usually rely on isn’t there. Our doulas are finding new and inventive ways to support them every day - and the more people who know what a doula can do, the better.”

For more information or to find doula support near you, visit thedouladirectory.com.

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