New doula program supports patients through pregnancy, childbirth

July 12, 2022

Leslie Perez wasn’t sure how a doula would help her, but the first-time parent was willing to give it a shot.

“I had heard of doulas, but I didn’t know exactly what they did,” said Perez, who is a patient at Venice Family Clinic. “So I was interested in participating in the Clinic’s program because this was my first child, and I didn’t know what was going to happen in the delivery room, especially during the pandemic, or how to manage pain.”

Doulas are trained and certified to provide physical, emotional and educational support before, during and after childbirth. While they do not provide medical care or deliver babies, they can help pregnant people and their families develop a birth plan and act as an advocate during the birthing process, as well as provide physical comfort with massages and other pain management techniques.

After meeting her doula, Mimi Allen, Perez began to understand the benefits of having a doula for her pregnancy. They discussed everything from how Perez was feeling and how she wanted her birthing experience to be to how to prepare for baby’s arrival. During one of her prenatal visits, Allen, who is also a certified massage therapist, gave Perez a pregnancy massage to alleviate muscle and joint aches. Allen proved even more helpful when the big time came.

“Having a woman there who had been through the same experience and understood my pain, who gave me words of affirmation to keep me going, was very encouraging,” Perez said. “She even helped comfort my baby’s father when he wasn’t sure what to do. Sometimes being at the hospital is scary, and Mimi made us feel comfortable.”

Successful support

Experiences like Perez’s were common in Venice Family Clinic’s doula pilot program, funded by the Tikun Olam Foundation as part of the Clinic’s new program, The Community Connection, which expands and integrates medical, mental health, early childhood education and other services to young families, with a goal of building better health outcomes and fostering increased resilience. The Clinic enrolled 14 pregnant patients in the pilot program last fall, with doulas providing three prenatal and three postpartum visits in addition to being present during birth. The feedback from the pilot was so positive that the Clinic plans to expand the program, with an official kick-off later this month.

“We’ve received positive feedback from all our patients who had doulas in this pilot program. Our patients told us that their doulas helped them in different ways, including managing anxiety before delivery, knowing when it’s the right time when to go to the hospital, and checking in on them after their babies arrived,” said Rigoberto Garcia, director of health education. “Especially for our patients, who have varying levels of support at home, having someone dedicated to seeing them through the birthing process can make a positive impact. Even something as simple as receiving a phone call from their doula asking how they are feeling can make a difference.”

With the launch of our doula program, Venice Family Clinic is the first and only community health center in California to offer doulas to its patients free of charge. The goal is to be able to provide a doula to any of the more than 400 people at the Clinic who give birth annually.

Research has shown that having continuous support during labor and delivery, which doulas provide, can help mitigate birth disparities among women of color. This can be especially beneficial for Black women and babies, who have disproportionately higher mortality rates due to childbirth compared to their white counterparts. Women who have continuous support are less likely to experience preterm birth or have cesarean sections and use fewer pain medications.

Building bonds

Allen, who worked with four of the pregnant patients in the pilot and who will be continuing to work as a doula in the Clinic’s Community Connection program, understands some of the experiences of Venice Family Clinic’s patients personally.

When Allen had her children about 20 years ago, she didn’t have much support. The father of her daughters was incarcerated, and she experienced postpartum depression after having her second child. Because she struggled, Allen wanted to help others so they wouldn’t have to.

Allen begins the doula process with a meet-and-greet to see if her personality gels with that of the pregnant patient; it’s not always a good fit, she admits. But being comfortable with each other is a key part of the process because of the intimate nature of doula work: Doulas come into your home and see you at some of your most vulnerable moments, so establishing that relationship early on is important for the pregnant person as well as their family.

Once they got to know each other, Perez and Allen put together a birth plan. Perez wanted an unmedicated birth. To help her manage pain and discomfort during labor, Allen used some of the techniques she and Perez had previously discussed, including essential oils, music, dimmed lights, walking, massages and hip squeezes. Labor took longer than expected, so she ended up getting an epidural. But Allen was able to help Perez until she was dilated to six centimeters.

As Perez got closer to delivering, Allen remembered that Perez and her mother had a tight bond. But because the hospital limited the number of guests she could have in the delivery room and doulas are often considered guests, Perez’s mother couldn’t be there.

“When Leslie was getting ready to push, I called her mom on FaceTime so she could be there for the birth, too,” Allen said. “I try to go the extra mile for my moms.”

Continuing care

During her postpartum visits with Perez, Allen offered support for both Perez’s physical and mental health. She made sure Perez was adjusting well to being a new parent, including how she was doing with breastfeeding.

Now, more than seven months later, Perez still talks about her experience with a doula as one of the best decisions she made on her pregnancy journey. And Allen continues to check in with Perez every once in a while because they established such a close relationship.

“If you can get a doula, you should get one,” Perez said. “I would recommend it for anyone, but especially if you’re a first-time mom and you’re scared. Just having the moral support is amazing. It was a very, very great experience.”