Can a birth doula improve breastfeeding success? March 29, 2014 15:26
Written By Michelle Roth, BA, LCCE, IBCLC
Continuous labor support during childbirth has many advantages, including a decreased risk of interventions (including cesarean birth), less use of pain medication, and more positive birth memories (Hodnett 2013). But did you know a doula may also increase breastfeeding success?
From the Greek word for slave, doula has evolved to mean a woman who supports another woman during the birth process. During childbirth, she supports the laboring woman and her partner physically - helping mom change positions, providing massage or counterpressure, and giving the birth partner suggestions on how to help – as well as emotionally and intellectually. She is typically with the couple from the start of labor to the time of birth. Because of her presence and her trusted position with the new parents, she may be the ideal member of the birth team to help a mom initiate breastfeeding.
In an early study of the effect of doula care on breastfeeding success, researchers found that women in the intervention group (doula care) were more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding at one month after the birth (Langer et al, 1998). These women were also less likely to wean or supplement for perceived low milk supply. In closing, the researchers write, “These results provide grounds to consider that psychosocial support during labour and the immediate postpartum period should be part of comprehensive strategies to promote breastfeeding “ (1062).
In another study, Nommsen-Rivers and colleagues (2009) assessed the timing of the onset of lactation and the proportion of breastfeeding moms at 6 weeks postpartum for two groups – those with and without doula care for the birth. Compared to the standard care group, women in the doula care group were more likely to have their milk come in by day 3, were less likely to use a pacifier in hospital, were less likely to report concerns about milk supply, and were more likely to be breastfeeding at 6 weeks. After looking at relationships between confounding factors, the authors conclude, “Among mothers with a prenatal stressor, doula care was particularly effective in increasing the odds of continued breastfeeding” (172).
When studying the effectiveness of a hospital-based doula program, Mottl-Santiago and colleagues found that women with doula care were more likely to express an intention to breastfeeding, and were significantly more likely to breastfeed within the first hour after birth. The authors caution, however, that their results may not be a direct effect of a doula at the birth, since the doulas also provided prenatal breastfeeding education to the expectant mothers.
A recent study showed even more promising results. Of the women who had doula care during birth, nearly all initiated breastfeeding (97.9% compared to 80.8% in the general low-income population studied). When looking at a subgroup of women who are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, the researchers found 92.7% of African American women with doula support initiated breastfeeding, significantly higher than in the general population studied (Kozhimannil 2013). The authors suggest that “access to culturally appropriate doula care may facilitate higher rates of breastfeeding initiation,” with the key being suitable matching of doulas to the client population.
What more evidence do we need? Having doula support for your labor and birth may increase the chances of your breastfeeding. Choose a doula who shares your same values and birth philosophy so you feel comfortable and confident in her care. Ask friends, family, your care provider, or your childbirth educator for referrals or check the DONA International website for a doula in your community. Be sure to interview the doula you choose – even asking about her background in breastfeeding education and support. Let her know you plan to nurse your baby, and ask if she will help you get started. Her support may be essential.
Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, Sakala C. (2013). Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7.
Kozhimannil KB, Attanasio LB, Hardeman RR, O'Brien M. (2013). Doula care supports near-universal breastfeeding initiation among diverse, low-income women. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health. E-pub ahead of print 9 JUL 2013.
Langer A, Campero L, Garcia C, Reynoso S. (1998). Effects of psychosocial support during labour and childbirth on breastfeeding, medical interventions, and mothers’ wellbeing in a Mexican public hospital: a randomised clinical trial. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (105), 1056-1063.
Mottl-Santiago J, Walker C, Ewan J, Vragovic O, Winder S, Stubblefield P. (2008). A hospital-based doula program and childbirth outcomes in an urban, multicultural setting. Matern Child Health J 12, 372–377.
Nommsen-Rivers LA, Mastergeorge AM, Hansen RL, Cullum AS, Dewey KG. (2009). Doula care, early breastfeeding outcomes, and breastfeeding status at 6 weeks postpartum among low-income primiparae. JOGNN 38, 157-173.