A Story About Certification

Oct 10, 2013 by

Once upon a time, there was a pregnant mother who wanted the support of another woman during her labor.  While she loved her husband, she knew they both needed something more.  Through her childbirth educator this mother got the name of a woman who might be able to help.  Once they met, they went for long walks together and the three of them chatted over tea.  The mother and father felt reassured by her presence and grew in their trust that the labor and birth could go smoothly.

When the time came they called their new birth friend.  They spent a few calm hours together before they all went to the hospital.  The triage nurse isolated the couple until their room was ready.  The mother was agitated and afraid but once reunited the three of them worked together to restore calm.  The new nurse was admiring but questioning at the same time.  She challenged their friend, “Who are you? What is your role?”

Their birth friend replied, “I am their doula. I’ve taken some classes and been to a few other births.  I–”.  But the nurse cut her off, uncertain of this doula person’s status and whether she would interfere with what the nurse needed to do.  The labor proceeded smoothly with the nurse and doula side by side caring for the mother.  The baby was born, fed, and procedures accomplished.  As she neared the end of her shift, the nurse told the doula, “I wish there was some way to know whether people like you would act like you do.  We get all kinds of people in here doing all kinds of things and we don’t know how to tell them apart. They all say they’re doulas, too.”

Thus the idea for certification was born.  Could there be some way to reassure medical people of certain standards of behavior?  There was also a need for doulas to bond together and promote the idea of doula support.  Could those two purposes actually be part of the same organization?

We all know the answer to that.  Informed Homebirth/Informed Birth and Parenting (IH/IBP) and DONA International were the first national organizations, followed a few years later by CAPPA International, Childbirth International (CBI), and Birth Arts International (BAI).  Now there are at least 14 organizations in the United States alone offering a variety of standards for birth doula certification. But let’s go back to the reason why it was invented in the first place.

Certification was created to offer doulas legitimacy and to give us control over setting our own standards.  For those unfamiliar with doula support, it gives them reassurance that there are standards for a doula’s actions.  In the medical culture where certification and licensure have great meaning, it shows respect for their way of doing things.  As doulas we are guides from our client’s culture to the hospital culture.  We are effective because we are not of that culture but we understand it and can explain its rituals, tools and language to our clients. But the flip side is that to be effective long term that culture needs to respect our presence.

In some hospitals a mother is not allowed to accompanied by a doula unless she is certified by an organization whose standards match those of DONA and CAPPA.  Mothers are supplied with the doula policy when they register to birth at the hospital.  Doulas are given a copy of the hospital’s policy and expectations about the doula’s role.  Many of these policies are not problematic for most birth doulas – no vaginal exams, no interpretation of monitor strips, the mother decides what she wants not the doula.   But these policies arise from “doulas” doing these things – they do not arise out of nowhere.  Every nurse manager I spoke with who had a doula policy in place cited several examples of conflict because the doula acted outside of the role that the hospital assumed was true for her.

Certification has opened the door for all doulas whether they individually choose to be certified or not.  In fact it is almost a back door for doulas who set their own personal standards for behavior.  Hospital staff and medical careproviders make assumptions about doula behavior based on the two main organization’s certification standards.  (There is more to the individual certification decision that I will outline in a companion post.  My objective in this post is to take a system perspective that goes beyond the individual – and I am not advocating pro or con, just observing what has occurred and why.)  Because of this, most newly trained doulas are able to accompany a mother without being given a compliance policy to sign.

Of course there is conflict with the autonomy of the mother to have whoever she wants with her during her birth experience.  But hospitals have retained the right to restrict birth companions if they feel it interferes with or has the potential to interfere with patient or employee safety or medical care.

There is something to be said for setting our own standards for our profession.  Personally I would rather prefer those standards be set by people who do what I do and share a similar philosophy.  The alternative is for people who don’t understand or respect a doula’s value to set those standards.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the article! I am in process of organizing a birth conference in Maine: Getting Back in Touch: Integrative Care and Childbirth. We talked about a doula presentation at the conference. The OB nurse manager said how many nurses are uncomfortable with doulas and how doulas sometimes interfere in very inappropriate situations. It made me wonder how to help ease that interface, and how to really emphasize the need to support vs antagonize staff at the hospital… Yet, that can be a real issue if their actions really Are not necessary and are interfering with the woman’s birth process. In my days as an OB nurse, I was also sometimes in the position of resisting doctors orders in support of a woman’s desires. How to find the balance of being an advocate, but not creating more stress for birthing families and medical staff is an important quest. Being certified ensures someone has been exposed to a certain standard of information, but does not ensure how they will interface with the medical establishment, especially if they are already very opinionated about medical birthing. I’d be interested to hear more about how doulas are trained to work with a system while still supporting the mother to get her needs heard and addressed.

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