Black doulas hope to guide expectant parents through childbirth

Dalhousie professor Barb Hamilton-Hinch is perched on her stomach on top of an exercise ball as a room of eager students learn how best to relieve lower back tension during labour. 

Hamilton-Hinch isn’t leading this discussion though, she’s among the 15 people who spent the weekend discussing how to support expectant parents.

The three-day doula course held at the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre in Halifax was open to black women, trans and non-binary people.

Doulas don’t offer medical advice but they assist women during pregnancy, labour and after birth.

Giving black women options

There are currently only a handful of doulas of African descent in Nova Scotia and many of the people drawn to this weekend’s sessions hope to ensure more black women have the option of getting support from someone with a similar cultural background.

“Having that nurturing and that calming person present in that space probably reduces some of the anxiety you’re going through, some of the stress that you’re going through. It doesn’t take away the pain, it helps you to work through the pain,” she said.

Research has shown that people respond better when they’re treated by a health-care practitioner — whether it be a nurse, physician or a physiotherapist — who looks like them, Hamilton-Hinch said.

She co-chairs Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians, which helped sponsor the training put on by Women’s Wellness Within, a non-profit group that supports pregnant women and trans individuals in prison.

Kalkidan Gebre (left), who graduated from Dalhousie’s School of Nursing and works with Women’s Wellness Within, and Barbara Hamilton-Hinch (middle), who is a researcher at Dalhousie, were among the people who participated in the three-day training course. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

After finishing the course, participants can work as birth doulas. They can also continue on to get advanced certification.

“It seems that a lot of us who have gotten engaged in this are because we want to work in the community and support women who normally wouldn’t have that support,” said Hamilton-Hinch.

“We want to help women who may not have the financial means, who may not have the support at home, who may be new to Canada and not understanding the health-care system.” 

Wanda Cox, the doula who led the group, said since many women brought years of their own knowledge to the table, her role was to facilitate and introduce new resources and techniques. 

From message techniques to effective communication

They discussed everything from massage techniques, to how to advocate for and communicate with expectant parents.

For instance, don’t tell people to relax. Encouraging them to take deep breaths and listen to their body often has a better response.

Doulas also help support people after the birth of a child — that could involve holding a baby, preparing a meal or talking about how to deal with postpartum depression.  

Kilah Rolle (left) says she’d like to work to ensure people’s birthing experience isn’t traumatizing. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Participant Kilah Rolle said she was drawn to the course in hopes that it might lead to future income and because she’d like to help people of African descent who are alone or in crisis.

She hopes to support people who’ve experienced violence, young and single parents and women who are incarcerated.

“Sometimes birth conditions are not always ideal and it would make a world of difference just to have the one … voice of support or just to have that presence of somebody there,” she said. “Even though the situations [they are in] may be very complex and painful and traumatizing …[birthing] doesn’t have to be that.”  

Shushan Araya and Peri Lockhart learn how to use a comfortable upright birth support chair, which women can use during labour. They’re available at the IWK but not all women know about them. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Rolle said generations of people in black communities have nurtured and supported women through pregnancies, even though they never have used the term doula. But she said there is still a benefit to getting official certification. 

“There is a lot of systemic racism in terms of where we may have the experience in marginalized communities, lived experience — which is entirely useful and entirely relevant — but it’s just not recognized,” she said.

“And I think we have a long way to go in Nova Scotia concerns in terms of recognizing lived experiences as a qualification.”

Waiting list of 50 people

There was a waiting list of about 50 people for the course, so organizers are already discussing holding another one. This course’s participants also want to stay in touch and expand on their skills. 

“We need to do a better job of bringing programs to the community and making it affordable and accessible,” said Hamilton-Hinch. 

“I think we’re going to see an increase in the use of doula in birthing especially given some of the constraints on our health-care system. And a doula provides that continuous care both before, during and after birthing a baby.”

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