Bright Idea: Doulas Support Young Moms

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Photograph of a doula.

Most youth probably aren’t familiar with the word doula. But some young women have come to know its meaning quite profoundly through the Community-based Doula Project in Chicago, Atlanta, Denver and other locations across the nation.

A doula shares information about childbirth and child rearing and provides physical and emotional support to a mother during pregnancy, labor and the early months of parenting. The Community-based Doula Project, in which women are recruited and trained to work as doulas in their communities, was first used in Chicago to serve low-income, pregnant adolescents. The model was developed by HealthConnect One, a nonprofit training and consulting agency.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to establishing a doula program for pregnant youth, says Jeretha McKinley, who manages national replication of the project at HealthConnect One. McKinley follows the principles below to ensure that each project is firmly entrenched in the community it serves.

Recruit trusted members of the target community. “The advantage of having a doula from the same community as the girls she works with,” says McKinley, “is her ability to understand the language, culture and experiences of the girls she serves.”

Each doula project characterizes community in its own way, whether as a neighborhood, a language group or some other definition.

In Atlanta, for instance, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, or G-CAPP, pays particular attention to language when it recruits and trains women to provide home-based services to first-time pregnant and newly parenting young women, ages 10 to 19. Because the project serves primarily African American and Latina women, doulas speak English and Spanish.

In Denver, where the doula project is part of a residential drug treatment center, doulas must be graduates of the treatment program.

Enlist trainers from the community. HealthConnect One developed a doula-training curriculum, but each site assembles its own training team from experienced doulas and other health workers within the community. Since each site serves a unique population, local trainers help tailor the curriculum for the target community.

The training involves 20 classroom sessions, plus experiential learning in which participants learn about themselves, their strengths, and their preferences. Parts of the curriculum are introspective; some involve mentoring and interacting with diverse people; and one assignment requires participants to go out and create their own catalog of community resources, such as education and job training programs and child care services, to have on hand for the girls they will serve.

Extend services past birth. By working with young mothers through their pregnancies and into their babies’ first few months, community-based doula programs have had promising results. G-CAPP has reported that young women served by doulas have

  • better parenting skills;
  • greater success with breastfeeding;
  • greater self-confidence;
  • less postpartum depression; and
  • significantly better maternal and infant health at six weeks after birth.

Less measurable, but perhaps most important, many young women have expressed more hope as a result of participating in the program. Many go back to school and want to graduate.

McKinley says many young women learn by example from their doulas, who come to be like second mothers to the young moms.

To learn more about the Community-based Doula Program in Atlanta, visit G-CAPP. To learn how to replicate the program in your area, contact HealthConnect One.

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