A Doula’s Bag-of-Tricks: What’s in it for You?

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 104, Winter 2012.
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When I was a new doula, I spent a lot of time thinking of all the things I needed to put into my doula bag-of-tricks. My mother gave me a beautiful old carpetbag, and I knew the minute I saw it that this was going to be my doula bag. I began gathering comfort tools: massage lotions and oils, a birth ball, a rebozo, a hot sock, essential oils, music, an electric candle and even a strand of holiday sparkling lights so I could help create sacred birth ambiance. Next came all the comfort items for me: a pair of L.L. Bean waterproof garden clogs, a change of clothes, a warm sweater (I often feel cold, especially in hospitals in the middle of the night), yoga mat, toothbrush, mints and make-up and hair clips so that I could freshen up each morning. With everything gathered, I picked up my bulging carpetbag and realized this was a lot to carry. I felt so prepared, trusting the tools I had packed.

What I came to learn is that this is the lens our society had created for me as a doula. All I could do! Birth after birth I held a hand and spoke calmly and quietly with words of reassurance: You are doing so well! You are strong. Trust your body and your baby! Ride the waves; release. I gently touched wherever she needed the extra pressure—shoulders, lower back and hands and smiled as my bag often sat in the corner. I began to see how it was my continuous reassuring presence, love and care that was my greatest gift. Just being there! Of course, in time all the tools in my kit were gently used, but I realized they had been as much for me to believe I had something to offer than they were for the women and men I served.

Today my doula bag is much smaller. It contains all my personal items, my own ball for me (I ask women to bring their own ball) and my favorite rebozo. I have learned that to educate and encourage women to pack their own comfort kit helps them to prepare for birth, postpartum, parenting and stress reduction in life. I encourage women to get acquainted with their birth ball in pregnancy, which allows them to practice and learn techniques that will help them move in labor and birth. The ball is also a wonderful place to rock a baby postpartum. The massage tools, oils and lotions are personal. This gives women an opportunity to explore the smells and how each one makes them feel. I encourage women to create their own playlists as well because when women listen to the music they like, their bodies release feel-good hormones and endorphins, providing natural pain relief. How special it can be for a woman to create playlists of music and sounds that stir different feelings and emotions that she can draw on in both labor and birth. Together, women and their partners can experiment with all the different items that bring them comfort in birth and life, mindfully choosing what works best for her and developing a tool kit of comfort that will extend well beyond the birth.

In my prenatal visits, I help women visualize a sensual, sacred, private event and ask them: What lights would you choose? Bright lights, candlelight, sparkle lights, dim lights? This is your opportunity to plan for your birth ambience. Creating the same setting—a romantic, sacred birth environment—will help a woman’s hormones flow and keep birth as safe and healthy as possible. A quote I love by Ina May Gaskin says, “The energy that gets the baby in, gets the baby out!” In this environment, my role as a doula is to not disturb. I am the keeper of the ambiance: honoring and respecting the woman, her partner, the birth team and keeping the rhythm of labor flowing by running the energy of love and tapping into my own flow of love hormones—keeping myself calm, connecting heart to heart, hand to hand and eye to eye and staying in my intuition and helping the laboring woman stay connected to hers. Just being in my own sacred space encourages her to stay in hers.

One doula at a recent workshop asked after hearing this explanation of just being: “Why are we called doulas? We should be called belas.” I love it! I am a bela—being with women.

Over the years my carpetbag has become lighter and so has my invisible bag. What is my invisible bag? I learned this expression from my dear friend and colleague, Elizabeth Davis. Elizabeth is a midwife, educator and co-author with me of Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying and Pleasurable Birth Experience. As Elizabeth and I teach together about pleasurable birth, I love how she frames our two bags. The first bag is the one that all birth companions or providers carry, with supplies and comfort measures. The other is our personal baggage of life experiences: times of happiness, joy, sadness, loss and, for many of us, experiences of trauma, neglect or abuse. We may have worked to heal, to find a place for that baggage, yet we always carry all our experiences with us in some form. As I looked at how my life’s baggage interfaced with my work as a doula, I found Amy Gilliland’s paper “From Novice to Expert—The Five Stages of Doula Development” (available at www.dona.org) incredibly insightful. Amy’s work helped me understand how being a doula was also a way to lighten my personal baggage. I learned how each birth, especially in the first 25 births we attend, is a mirror into our souls—a way to view the birth through our own unique lens. We see what buttons are pushed that are about us, what joys are our joys and, in time, begin to separate ourselves and our baggage until we are totally present for someone else. I often wonder if I would have learned this if I had not begun my journey as a doula. When else do we so profoundly see the range of one’s emotions and allow ourselves to also be so totally open and vulnerable—to see into someone else’s deepest, most intimate being and accept them and love them with all our heart? Being with women, their partners, fathers, grandparents and friends at this powerful sacred gateway has taught me so much about the baggage we carry through life. I have lightened my load in so many ways. I have learned to love unconditionally, to accept, to trust, to believe and to follow my intuition. The tools I once thought I needed, I found were actually within me all the time. It is the same with you—I hope that your toolkit becomes lighter as you look deeper inside to see your authentic self and learn that being is doing!

About Author: Debra Pascali-Bonaro

Debra Pascali-Bonaro is the Founder and President of Pain to Power Online Childbirth Classes, chair of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Initiative, and advisor to Human Rights in Childbirth, Healthy Mother Birth Center India, and International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA). She is an inspirational international speaker. Debra’s passion comes from her years as a Lamaze International childbirth educator, and birth and postpartum doula trainer with DONA International. She has worked with women and men, midwives, doulas, and physicians in over 30 countries, bringing respect, love, and pleasure to birth and life!


Debra is the director of the award-winning documentary Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret and co-author of Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying and Pleasurable Birth and Nurturing Beginnings: MotherLove’s Guide to Postpartum Home Care for Doulas and Outreach Workers, which explore the intimate and sacred nature of birth.


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