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Natural Awakenings Philadelphia

A Doula is Like Having a Personal Birth Assistant

May 01, 2017 03:10PM ● By Kelly A. Montgomery

After the birth of her third child in 2010, Heather Keeney could not stop talking about it. “I was telling a friend, ‘Everyone should get to feel like this about their birth!’” Keeney recalls. “She laughingly told me I should become a doula. I didn’t really understand what a doula was at that point,” she says. After researching, “It was the biggest light bulb moment of my entire life. Once I understood what a doula was, I just knew it was what I was supposed to do,” she says.                                  

A doula is “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during, and shortly after childbirth,” according to DOLA International, the world’s fist doula certifying agency.

“The number one focus of a doula is, ‘How did mom feel about her experience?’” adds Keeney. “A doula is the one who can point out areas where you have a choice that may not be presented to you.” For example, Keeney—who mostly attends hospital births—recalls a client who was a medical student in labor for more than 24 hours and only six centimeters dilated. “Her body was tired and weak,” Keeney says. The woman, who wanted a non-medicated birth, consulted with her birth team about a Cesarean section, which she also wanted to avoid. Keeney suggested to her client that an epidural might help; and it did. After agreeing to the medication, the client rested for a few hours. After resting, she became stronger and fully dilated, resulting in a vaginal birth.

Keeney became a birth and postpartum doula in 2011 through the Birth Arts International training program. She also is a certified breastfeeding counselor through the Nursing Mother’s Alliance, and a childbirth and family educator. In 2013, she became the co-founder and director of Doulaville Philadelphia, a collective of independent doulas throughout Greater Philadelphia that pool their resources to bring their services to as many women in the community as possible.

Keeney’s childbirth doula work includes providing positive verbal support to her clients and family; helping partners know where their place is in the birth; massaging the mother-to-be and giving her double-hip squeezes to relieve pain and discomfort; assisting clients to communicate with the birth team; and reminding the woman to drink, urinate and change positions. “Sometimes it’s the quiet presence in the room,” along with a smile, reassuring nod or meeting of the eyes, explains Keeney. Before doing any of these, though, Keeney observes her client, her partner, the mood and the environment. Her postpartum doula work includes laundry, light housekeeping, meal prep and caring for the newborn while the mother naps or showers.

Before becoming a doula, Keeney was a stay-at-home mother. She says the most difficult part of her job is being on call. “That’s the thing that burns many women out,” she explains. But Keeney makes it work and is successful. She has a solid support system in her family and usually won’t take more than two clients due in the same month. As of April 10, she has attended her 73rd birth.

Part of Keeney’s personal mission, besides spreading birth work throughout her community, is to dispel the common misconceptions about the profession. First, doulas attend all types of births, not just homebirths or at birthing centers, she explains. Second, women become doulas for many reasons, not just because they had a bad birth experience and want to help prevent those for other women. “I had a really good birth in a hospital with a nurse-midwife,” says Keeney.

Two of the most important pieces of advice Keeney offers to her clients is knowing all their options and not being afraid to ask questions. She says, “Trust your intuition,” she advises. “It’s your choice. It’s your birth.”

Contact a Philly Doula at [email protected]com or visit

Kelly A. Montgomery is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and editor.

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