Doula tips and tricks: To shadow or not to shadow, that is the question.

You know those cute little boxes of chocolate that are oh, so popular around this time of year? The ones that have assorted flavors/fillings with the cute little map of what’s inside?

One of my favorite things to do with the  box  is to pull out my favorite candy and open it up aWoman Eating Box Of Chocolates Sitting On Sofa At Home little by smashing it on the bottom to see what’s inside. There’s something satisfying about seeing and feeling the familiarity of the chocolates that I like and the ones I don’t, by looking inside the depth of their sugary goodness rather than just reading the name of the chocolate on the map. My favorite, the chocolate covered caramel always looks and feels the same, and I could just skip the peeking(i.e smashing) step and pop it into my mouth when I find it by name, but there’s just something comfortable about opening it and feeling it- for myself. How does this apply to doula work, you ask?

Recently, I finished teaching a DONA International doula workshop in which a doula-to-be asked about “shadowing” another doula before acting as a doula on her own.

This is not an uncommon question for doulas in training, in fact, I probably field this question in each and every doula training I offer. In my years as a doula, I have worked in collaboration with several newer doulas who have had a desire to see another doula in action before they are in the birthing room with a family one on one. I think shadowing can be valuable.

My rule of thumb for shadowing is that the parents have to feel like it’s a benefit to have two doulas, AND the new doula has to participate, not just watch. The newer doula should be helpful and have a role that everyone is comfortable with. There are a few reasons for why this is important.

It allows us to protect the sacred space for the mother so that she is completely comfortable during the birthing process.

We’ve heard of mothers who have proclaimed that they felt like a “watched pot” by all of the staff, family members, medical students, and others involved in their birth. The last thing we want to do as doulas is to add to that stress and tension by having another body in the room just observing. We want to protect the very delicate hormonal dance that her body is doing as it builds to the time of birth. We want to be seen as ones who fill the gaps, helping families how they most need us. At the same time, someone else’s birth is not about us, it’s about that precious family in the making. If we bring a “shadow” to just watch, we may be actually shifting the intent(to train a new doula) and the focus a bit.

Just like the box of chocolates, doulas need to get in there and “feel” it.

Box of ChocolatesThey need to grab the chocolate that looks like the truffle and they need to break it open and see the truffley goodness inside, and they may not be able to fully do that as a shadow.



They need to intuitively feel- in the moment- how they can best serve the family they have the honor to be with.

They need to get to work and learn to ebb and flow with the waves of labor. They need to be given the space to learn when it’s best to put the hands-on skills they’ve tried into action, and when it’s best to just be present. They need to get in there and experience labor and birth first hand- as the primary doula.

Just as I believe that women enter into birth with exactly what they need to accomplish the birth of their child, I believe that new doulas who have completed my training(or one of my very skilled colleagues), enter into birth with what they need as well.

One of our great mentors, sometimes referred to as The Mother Of All Doulas, Penny Simkin once said that the most important thing that doulas can bring with them into a birth is their heart and hands. It is in that vein that I know that doulas who have taken a quality training and are working through the certification process have the tools to be effective doulas- right from the start, shadowing or not!

Each new doula brings something special to the birth of a baby, and we desire for our doulas to feel empowered to trust that they will have exactly what that family needs at the time that they need it. It is often through the experience of walking alongside a family, that the doula will truly get a good feel for what’s inside the beautiful and exquisite doula client relationship, and how they can best serve families in the moment.

While shadowing can be of value to the doula, it does not take the place of hands on training that comes with the first solo client.  While it can sometimes bring a bit of fear for a brand new doula to take on a solo client, right from the start, be reminded that you bring value. Your training, your at-home learning, your investment of time and resources,  your heart, and your hands, all bring important things to the birth.  Will you feel more comfortable as a doula after a few times, of course you will, but can you do it right out of the gate- you bet you can!I BELIEVE YOU CAN BE A GREAT DOULA!

Just as we explore confidence building with our clients, you too can take responsibility for building your own confidence.  I believe that YOU can be a great doula, now what are you doing to believe that too? It’s time to grab that box of chocolates and see what’s inside, I’m betting there’s something really amazing waiting just for you.

Always growing, ever learning, much loving,

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Melissa Harley, AdvCD/BDT(DONA), LCCE is an advanced certified birth doula, approved birth doula trainer, and certified childbirth childbirth educator.  She is the owner of Capital City Doula Services (CCDS) and this blog.   While working as a doula led her to the childbirth profession, mentoring  families and professionals  is one of her greatest joys.  To contact Melissa, please visit our contact us page.