Doulas! For the love of birth, please stop speaking for your clients

I’m just home from the AWHONN Michigan conference on Mackinac Island, where I was invited to speak about ways labor and delivery nurses can improve birth.

As part of my main talk, I addressed nurse-doula relationships, as I usually do when I have the honor of working with nurses. I asked them if they ever saw doulas speaking for clients. Most of the hands around the room went up. After my talk, two nurses immediately made a beeline for me to tell me about serious challenges they were having with a local doula, who speaks for her clients at every birth. It’s definitely not the first time I’ve heard it. Whenever I train nurses, they bring up this issue of doulas speaking for our clients again and again. This is a problem, doulas. A big one.

Now despite the ranty title I gave to this blog post, I do realize I’m not the ethical arbiter of the doula profession. Doulas can choose for themselves how to interact with clients and staff at a birth. But let me make the case for why speaking for your clients is almost always a terrible idea.

If you’re a DONA International doula, you’re out of scope. 

The DONA International Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics address this issue head on. It's a great guide for helping us think through our responses.

From the Code of Ethics:

Rights and Prerogatives of Clients. “The doula should make every effort to foster maximum self-determination on the part of his/her clients.”

I’d argue that if you’re speaking for your clients (even if you’re repeating what they told you previously that they wanted), you are interfering with maximum self-determination.

And from the Standards of Practice:

“Clients and doulas must recognize that the advocacy role does not include the doula speaking instead of the client or making decisions for the client. The advocacy role is best described as support, information, and mediation or negotiation.”

Well there you go. In black and white, DONA doulas don’t speak for their clients.

What about your certifying organization? Leave a comment below to share what your organization says about this issue. It’s my sense that most doula organizations agree on this point. Am I right or wrong?

You're stealing your client's power.

I think most doulas who speak for their clients are honestly trying lift up their clients, honor their wishes and help them have a great birth. I get it!

It’s true that doulas do remind our clients of what they wanted for their birth, and we speak up when things are straying from the plan. Many dozens, maybe more than 100 times, I’ve said something like this at a birth:

“Megan, I know you didn’t want Pitocin for your birth. Do you want to ask Dr. Smith about pros, cons and other options before you decide?”

Yes. This question reminds Megan of what she wanted, alerts her that things might be about to stray, reminds her to ask questions, and reinforces that it is her decision whether or not to use Pitocin as a tool during her birth. It lifts her up to advocate for herself — the client has the power. If Megan didn’t ask all the questions that I think might be helpful, or if I know of other options that weren’t mentioned, I also might chime in with a question or two to help bridge the communication between her and her provider. That’s totally within the doula scope and, I would argue, empowering.

What if instead, the doula said, “No, she really doesn’t want Pitocin. I think we’re going to get this labor going on its own.” This is the kind of thing nurses tell me happens all the time.

It’s tempting to think that people are too vulnerable in birth to speak for themselves. That’s rarely the case. With good support, and even when their voices shake, I’ve heard so many women dig deep to find their power, and speak for what they want. I'm always there to back them up, but unless they are unconscious or otherwise compromised, our clients can speak for themselves.

Even when our clients want to give their power to us, it’s never ours. It’s a hard thing when a medical professional asks a question, and our client looks to us for our opinion. From what nurses tell me, this seems to be when doulas are most often stepping in to speak for the family. I have opinions in these moments, and I’m sure you do too. But it’s never our place! I don’t want that power.

Consider for a minute what this scenario might look like if your client has changed their mind. Yes, Megan might have told me before her birth in the strongest terms that she didn’t want Pitocin, but maybe now she’s thinking that it could be a good option. She might be looking to me for an opinion, reassurance, confirmation or to talk her out of it. If I offer an opinion or speak for her, it all but takes away the option for her to make her own decision, free from anyone’s influence. She’s now thinking about my advice, and also my judgement if she goes in another direction. I’ve already spoken for her, so she’d have to directly contradict me in order to change her mind — “Actually, Jessica, I think I’d like to give it a try.” That’s pretty awkward.

Doulas, you are not the person giving birth, and you are not trained as a medical professional. It seems pretty clear that you should not be the one speaking up here. If you’re ever in doubt, ask yourself in the moment, “Who has the power right now?” If the person with the power is the doula, the nurse, the provider or anyone except the person giving birth, that’s a problem.

It puts you at risk for liability.

Again, I don’t want the power. If the doula is making the decisions, that comes with responsibility and liability. Our profession is protected from the most serious liability risks precisely because we are non-medical. If something goes wrong and the doula has made decisions for the client, that can all come rushing back to the doula in the most serious, risky ways.

I remember one of my mentors telling me years ago, “Jessica, we [doulas] know just enough to be dangerous.” For real. For those doulas who really want to be involved in the medical side of birth, please, go get trained! We need you as a nurse, a midwife or a doctor. After you’re educated, you can give all the advice you want, and you’ll also carry the liability for those (now fully informed) recommendations.

You're going to raise tension with the staff.

Medical professionals get irritated when doulas speak for our clients. “It’s like it’s her birth every time,” one nurse told me this weekend about a doula, “not the patient’s.” Another nurse said, “I was really worried about this mom’s safety, and here was the doula telling me we couldn’t do what we all thought needed to be done. It wasn’t just a preference issue, it was about safety. It would have been one thing if the client was saying no, but it was the doula.”

I don't blame these nurses for being irritated. They should be.

doulas tension with staff

And their irritation will last not just for this birth, but into the next time they see this doula. Sometimes, it might even extend to the next doula they see, too. If the doula had just lifted up the client to speak for themselves, most of the tension would likely be avoided.

Sometimes we need to do things within our scope of practice that annoy the staff. There have been times that I’ve spoken up to remind someone that they have a choice, or to alert them to something that was about to happen without their consent, to the great irritation of a nurse, doctor or midwife. But that’s part of my job, and clearly within my scope. I can handle that irritation, and because we have respectful and collaborative relationships at other times, the staff and I are usually able to work through it with mutual regard. And I am absolutely not afraid to speak up in the face of obstetric abuse, which I have done and would do again in a heartbeat. But why bring on that frustration for something that is clearly outside of our scope, and that is potentially disempowering to our client? It’s just not worth it.

We’ve seen a big evolution of doula-hospital relationships in my home community over the past dozen years. There was a time many years ago when my relationship with one practice in particular was pretty rocky. Whenever I walked into the room with a client, the tension immediately went up. I could feel it and I’m sure my clients did too, which is one of the reasons I decided to stop doing births with that practice (which is now out of business).

Tension and adrenaline are not good for the hormones of labor. That means that when we’re fostering unnecessary conflict with the staff by speaking for our clients, we might also be doing direct harm to the client’s labor progress. Even beyond that particular birth, the tension can extend to your next client’s birth, and the client after that, especially if speaking for your clients is a pattern for you. That tension can also unfairly extend to other doulas who do stay within their scope, just because they too are “doulas.”

Today, after lots of relationship building with our hospital staff, when I or one of the doulas in my agency walk into a hospital room, we’re usually greeted warmly. Sometimes we even get a hug. The client relaxes and oxytocin flows, knowing their team is ready to work together to help them have a great birth.

Rocky relationships with staff are bad for business.

If all the other reasons haven’t convinced you to avoid speaking for your clients, maybe money will. The most successful doulas I’ve known get referrals from doctors, midwives and nurses. That’s not likely to happen if you’re regularly speaking for your clients. Actually, they might warn clients against working with you. And if you end up with practices that won’t work with you or a hospital that bans you from attending births there, that’s really, really bad for business.

Now hear me on this. I’m not ever going to sell my doula soul, and I don’t think you should either. I will always advocate for my clients (within scope), and I will always speak up when confronted with obstetrical abuse. That’s my obligation as a professional and as a human being.

But in this case, it turns out that what’s within my scope and empowering to my clients also happens to be good for business. Win-win-win. I’ll take the business boost as a bonus reason not to speak for my clients.

So if you’re feeling me now on this issue, and you agree that you’d rather not speak for your clients, what’s a doula to do instead?

It can take some practice to master the doula’s advocacy role. In my experience, it can be tempting to speak for a client in a few common situations. Here are the circumstances I’ve seen, and some suggestions on how to handle them.

  • Something is happening quickly, and your client has told you they don’t want it.

    I think well-meaning doulas sometimes speak for their clients in these circumstances in the interest of time. For example, a cord is about to be clamped, and the client wanted to take a physiologic approach. It would be easy to say, “She wants to wait to cut the cord,” and that might be true.

    I’ve been occasionally caught in this situation, and I can empathize that it’s a mouthful to quickly say, “Kiara, it looks like Dr. Smith wants to cut the cord right away, did you want to talk about that first?” Instead, on this particular issue, you can be pre-emptive by checking in with your client between pushes, especially if you know their provider prefers early cord clamping. You could say, “Kiara, do I remember right that you wanted to keep the cord intact until it’s done pulsating? This would be a great time to talk with Dr. Smith about it.” In this case, you’re connecting my client with their provider — a bridge of communication.

    Another strategy you can effectively use if things are moving very quickly (and not for an emergency reason), is to say directly to the medical professional, “Oh, I think she has some preferences on that. Could you please check with her first?” I like to think this also prompts the nurse, doctor or midwife to remember to be their own best professional selves, seeking out permission and consent (or refusal) instead of just plowing ahead out of habit.

  • The nurse or provider asks you directly what the client wants.

    This has happened to me a number of times, and it always take me by surprise. When I’ve asked nurses about it, they usually tell me it’s because they’re used to other doulas telling them what a client does or doesn’t want. It’s a fairly easy response for the doula here: “I’m not sure, let’s ask.” Another reply you can give is, “I know she had some thoughts on that, why don’t we check in?” If it’s something mentioned in your client’s birth plan, you can also refer back to that document.

  • Your client looks to you with pleading, searching eyes, not saying anything.

    They might be looking to you for an answer. They might also just be looking to you for reassurance and lifting up. It doesn’t matter either way, I suggest the same response:

    “This is a lot to think about. We are all here to support you. I remember you said XYZ when we talked about this a few weeks ago, but I also know things can change. How can we help you make your best decision right now?”

    After that, you can prompt your client to ask about benefits, risks and options, always reinforcing that they have the ultimate decision-making authority. When I handle situations in this way, I’m sometimes totally surprised by what my client chooses as their best route. It might be different than what I would choose, or different than what I would expect based on our previous conversations. People can change their minds. In most cases, we’re working with adults. They own this decision for ALL. THE. REASONS.

  • Your client asks you directly what you would do (or what you think they should do).

    Ugh, this is so hard! Because I have opinions, and I know you do too, doula. But going back to the idea that this isn’t our choice to make, here’s a phrase you can use:

    “I would do exactly what you’re doing — gather all of the information about risks and benefits, and then make my best decision in the moment. You and [partner] have a lot of wisdom and good judgment. Do you need more information right now?”

That’s it. You can totally do this. I’ve found that once I got used to using these kinds of phrases, they now come second nature to me. I feel like I’ve lifted my client up, nurtured them in the truest sense of the word, fostered collaborative relationships, and my clients come out the other side feeling fully supported and happy with the doula experience. That’s good for all of us.

What are your thoughts? Have you faced these tough moments as a doula before? What wisdom can you share on how you handled it? Do you think it’s a problem when doulas speak for their clients — or not?

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About Jessica English

Hey there, I'm Jessica English, the owner of Heart Soul Birth Pros and Birth Kalamazoo, Michigan's first and longest-running doula agency. I've been a birth professional for more than a dozen years, and today I specialize in training, coaching, mentoring and supporting doulas and childbirth educators.

14 Comments

  1. Hillary Wollin on October 16, 2018 at 1:43 am

    Thank you Jessica
    Just reinforces what I know!
    Young, inexperienced Doulas take heed!

    • Jessica English on October 16, 2018 at 2:31 pm

      So glad you are already working this way too, Hillary! I’ve been surprised that often I hear that very experienced doulas are also speaking for the clients. I think it’s easier for us to help shape new doulas than get experienced doulas to change their approach — but we can keep trying. 🙂

  2. Penny Simkin on October 16, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Right on, Jessica, and beautifully explained!

    • Jessica English on October 16, 2018 at 2:32 pm

      Thank you, Penny! It’s always humbling to hear your reinforcement — a good affirmation that we’re on the right track. We all learned about this from you, of course. xoxo

  3. Pamela Curry on October 16, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    New doula here! Luckily I haven’t made these mistakes yet as I am being as cautious as possible. If anything, a bit too cautious as I’m gaining some footing. However, I’m so thrilled to be given language to help be the best doula I can be to my clients! Thank you so much for bringing this to light 🙂

    • Jessica English on October 16, 2018 at 8:26 pm

      That’s another risk, isn’t it — that new doulas especially might be too nervous to say much of anything. Advocacy is definitely part of our role, so I’m glad you found the language helpful as you prepare for future births. It sounds like you’re doing great work for families!

  4. Dianne Michael on October 17, 2018 at 12:48 am

    I feel like most of my clients are well informed, so I haven’t had the urge to speak for them. But there have been times when the medical personnel come in right before the birth who haven’t looked at her birth plan and therefore, don’t know her wishes, do something she definitely doesn’t want (such as putting a towel between the mom and baby instead of over them). To try and avoid that I have talked to our labor nurse late in labor and have asked her if she would please be sure those who come in at the end know this mom’s wishes. Is that overstepping? The times I’ve done it, the second and third stages go more smoothly as far as the mom getting what she wants.

    • Jessica English on October 17, 2018 at 1:06 am

      What a thoughtful question, Dianne! I don’t think that mentioning those wishes would be a bad thing to do, necessarily, but I wonder if there’s another way to approach it that still directs the power back to the client (so the nurse is clear that these are your client’s wishes and not yours). Do your clients put these hopes on a birth plan? That might be an easy way to address it, to mention to the nurse, “Oh, they had some wishes for this next part of the birth, do you have time to quickly look it over on their birth plan before the other staff members join us?” How would that feel for you? Or you can always direct it back to your clients again, “Sam and Mac, I know you had some specific wishes for when the baby comes out, this would be a great time to talk about that with your nurse.” This can empower the partner, too, who is more appropriate to speak for the person giving birth when needed. Again, I’m not the person “in charge” of how doulas phrase things, but these are some things you might think about to make it even more client centered.

  5. Shevy on November 12, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    I appreciate and agree with all you have written. I find this easy to implement throughout the first stage of labor and into active labor. I find that I struggle with this in the moment when things are progressing quickly and moms (in fully natural labor) don’t WANT to use the head space to think or talk for themselves. Perhaps I’m in a unique situation as I often work with moms who have no partner or other support person there. They want me to act as the partner and doula. Its may be a composed hypnobirthing mama who is so absorbed in the hynotic trance that they don’t want to exit that to make a thinking decision. Other times its a mom in transition who is again so fully absorbed in her labor that she doesn’t want to be “disturbed” with any other words other than -you are doing great…nice slow deap breath in to your baby etc. Making decisions at these points interrupts the flow. Ie: mom wanted warm compresses and slow pushing. Mom wanted specific birthing position and medical staff is maneuvering her into other birthing positions. Mom wanted directed pushing from midwife to avoid tearing or mom wanted spontaneous pushing to go with her own feelings and new nurses come in screaming PUSH 1,2,3,4, HOLD YOUR BREATH AND PUSH. etc… It’s not necessarily so practical to say Megan do you have a preference on the nurses directing your pushing? Perhaps they feel it is medically necessary to SCREAM PUSH! or the mom doesn’t hear?? Moms can effectively push without all the DRAMA… I’m curious to hear your response on that. Would you leave those moments of drama to the others in room or would you try to step in? If there is no partner in the room do you think the doula can be more proactive and step in during these moments?

    • Jessica English on November 12, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      What thoughtful reflections, Shevy! I hear you on all of this. It’s a lot when we are the only support person in the room, agreed. In the situation you described (hypno-client deeply immersed in trance-like state, nurses aggressively coaching pushing), I think I’d try a couple of things. First, I’d nudge the parter to say something before pushing starts. If there’s no partner, as pushing approached, I’d give the nurses a heads up that my client had some wishes for pushing on the birth plan. Then everyone’s on the same page before we start, and the client doesn’t have to speak. If pushing came on suddenly, I’d do the same — “Mary [nurse], Megan has some wishes for pushing on her birth plan. I think she was really hoping we could all be quietly supportive rather than coaching. Can I grab the plan for you?” That seems like a good “bridge” role for the doula, and it feels within scope for me. I do think it’s a little unrealistic for people birthing in the hospital to not want to speak to the staff at all, especially if they don’t have a partner there to do that for them. If a client wanted me to really speak for them in that way, I think I might turn down the connection in our initial interview (I always address our advocacy role then). Do you feel like that approach of pointing them to the birth plan could work? Do you think there are opportunities for more education for your local nurses to learn about mother-led pushing and other elements of physiologic birth? As a doula trainer, I love it when hospital bring me in for comfort measures and cesarean reduction trainings. Once the nurses have been exposed to these ideas, they might even start doing it without prompting.

      • Shevy on November 12, 2018 at 6:04 pm

        I appreciate your response. I’m thinking about your point about clients unrealistic expectations for doula advocating role and I think that is probably what I am seeing. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing though in these specific cases if there is no partner available to do it for them. Otherwise, like you suggested, I can suggest the partner initiate the discussion. I find we can build a great connection to our nurse and we are all on the same page with regard to the birth plan but then just when mom is really pushing (not the first 20 minutes of pushing for a first time mom) but the pushes that really bring on crowning the room floods with extra new nurses that all start the drama. I understand that they might want extra medical personel in case of need but in one second all “birth plans” go out the window. I find that when I consistently go back to the same hospital and group of midwives that know me I don’t encounter this issue but when I venture into new territory this issue comes up. I typically just take a step back and let the medical staff do their thing but I feel bad about it after…

        • Jessica English on November 12, 2018 at 6:20 pm

          This sounds like a great opportunity to enlist your nurse! Maybe the birth plan could specifically call out what the client wants to happen when the baby’s nurse and other come into the room, and your nurse could help communicate that to them. Maybe the client makes little signs to put up around the birth space — “Welcome to my birth space! I’ll be in the zone, so no loud voices or ‘PUSH-PUSH-PUSH’ encouragement, please. If you haven’t been to a hyno-birth before, I hope you’ll enjoy the experience. Thank you, Megan” Then I’d just smile and point everyone to the signs that you client made for herself. (I always start with honey, and only move toward vinegar when it’s really needed.) As a doula, you have the advantage of knowing what’s common at a particular hospital. That’s a huge advantage to your clients, and you can help them prepare ahead of time. It sounds like you’re a really thoughtful doula, Shevy!

          • Shevy on November 12, 2018 at 6:48 pm

            I like the signs idea or enlisting the nurse. Thanks! I find it helpful just having the lights off, relaxing music on or the hypnobirthing track, and aromatherapy in the room. I feel like that creates the ambiance that nurses feel just by entering the zone and sometimes words aren’t necessary when the ambiance has been created. But other times I watch it all go out the window… it’s usually with the entrance of an intimidating Dr or an assertive older nurse that is very set in her ways… at those time the nice nurse we had working with us gets intimidated too and lets them take over… Thanks for the tip!



  6. […] Jessica English nailed it! Doulas! For the love of birth, please stop speaking for your clients! […]

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