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Doulas and Cesarean Birth

I’m certainly no expert on etiquette in the operating room but I’ve learned a few helpful things for us non-medical folks over the years. 

100% of the time, when my client makes the cesarean decision, she is told that only her partner can go into surgery with her.  I’ve learned to question that policy.  Usually I’m still left alone in the L&D room staring forlornly at the remains of their labor scene.  But perhaps six times now (and three of those happened this year) I accompanied the couple past those double doors.  To the operating room. 

1)  How can a doula get an invitation?

Ask.  Ask quietly but with confidence.  Let them know it isn’t your first rodeo.  Ask everyone.  Ask the nurse.  Ask the OB.  Ask a passing nurse in the hallway.  The first answer will probably be “no.”  The nurse and OB usually defer to the anesthesiologist.  Why this god of the operating room gets to make the call, I have no idea.  But s/he does.  I’ve found that the nurse and OB often “forget” about my request.  So I ask again. 

I remember talking with an OB after a vaginal birth once.  I mentioned that I was never allowed into the OR at this particular hospital but XYZ hospital down the road usually let me.  She replied, “Huh!  I never thought about inviting the doula to come back.  I bet that would be good for the patient.  You be sure and ask me next time that happens.”  P.S. I remember a previous birth with her when I DID ask.  She said, “no.”  Sigh.  See, they “forget.”

“Would you ask the anesthesiologist to make an exception and let me go with my client?  I’ve been allowed to back before. ”  Repeat.  Repeat again. 

Before the cesarean, the client may want to make her special requests to the OB (delayed cord clamping, dad to announce gender, keep the placenta, etc).  Of course, you might also remind staff of these choices in the moment.  Just in case they forget.

2) What will you wear to the party?

Usually I’m given the same paper scrubs as the dad.  They may be huge.  I’ve had to tie knots in the back of the shirt 1980’s style.  Once a kind nurse brought me cloth scrubs in my size.  It was wonderful!  Mainly because I was wearing the same color and fashion of all the other masked nurses and had more freedom to move about the OR.  Doula undercover. 

You’ll also get a fancy shower cap, mask, and covers for your shoes.  Strangely, no gloves.  But there is usually a hand sanitizer pump just inside the operating room.  I use it just to be on the safe and clean side. 

3) Confessions of a wallflower

You will be ushered to a stool beside the mom’s head.  Maybe once or twice, I was directed to stand.  This is the time for grace.  No tripping over your feet or craning your neck for a view.  Prove to the anesthesiologist and/or nurse anesthetist that you’re one of the cool kids.  Sit.  Meekly.  Hands folded.  No snapping pictures yet.  Perhaps a nod to the medical staff. 

Mom will be lying flat on her back with her arms outstretched.  Often her arms will be strapped down.  There will be a curtain between mom’s chest and her belly.  When I’m standing, I have to stand on my tiptoes to see anything on the other side.  I do not recommend standing on tiptoes.  See earlier mention of grace. 


4) The popular kids in the room

Sitting/standing behind mom is the nurse anesthetist and/or anesthesiologist.  This person is monitoring mom’s vitals.  You want this person to like you.  This is the aforementioned god of the OR. 

The OB is below the curtain with his/her surgical assistant(s).  Sometimes a student and an attending are chatting in the background as in the picture below.  Classy.

Mom’s labor and delivery nurse is there.  Often with an L&D nurse who is on cesarean duty. 

Near a baby warmer is a pediatrician and a baby nurse.  See them in the background?  Try to look beyond the bloody gauze in a hanging shoe organizer bag.  No, it isn’t really a shoe organizer bag.  But it surely looks like one hanging there.

5) When the party is in full swing

Once the surgery is underway, I sort of inch my way out of the stool and move away from mom’s head.  I want to get some pictures of something other than a blue curtain.  This part is when I’m in ask-forgiveness-rather-than-permission mode.  This part is also how I’ve managed to watch and photograph from below the curtain.  Just call me Sneaky McSneakerson. 

During this time, partner stays right by the mom.  There isn’t any physical support that can be offered during this time.  Mom can’t have ice chips or a cool cloth.  Her partner’s presence is THE essential support.

Of course the big moment is when the baby is lifted up over the curtain for mom to see.  Often the partner is instructed to stand up to see this moment.  The curtain is usually lowered a bit. 

The OB passes the baby to a nurse.  Baby goes to the warmer for the pediatrician to check.  This is standard for cesarean.  I switch places with the Dad so he can follow baby while I stay near to mom.  I pass the camera to Dad. 

And I giggle/cry/oooh/aaaah with the mom about the amazing baby.  I describe what I see happening over at the warmer.  “Aww, baby just got her first rectal temp. check.”  Good stuff.  If it is taking a long time, I will grab the camera back and show mom pictures of her baby. 

Post-birth, I’ve also noticed that many moms experience pressure in their abdomen.  Sometimes they are shaky or feel dizzy/nauseous.  Blood pressure might drop.  There isn’t much I can do except encourage and normalize her physical feelings.  Or speak to the nurse anesthetist about what she is feeling. 

6)  Making your moves

Dear super doula, you can be a game-changer if you play the cards right and all the stars are aligned.  You can sometimes get almost-immediate skin-to-skin contact for your client.  If the pediatrician and the nurse anesthetist/anesthesiologist agree, your humble request may be granted.  You may have to pinky swear you’ll hold the baby in place especially if they are unwilling to unstrap mom’s arms.  And swear on your great-grandmother’s tomb that you will not let the baby get cold. 

When your wish is granted, unsnap mom’s gown at the shoulders, expose some skin.  There may be monitors stuck to her chest.  Ignore them.  Place baby skin-to-skin on mom’s chest, cover baby with a blanket, and then you or partner hold the baby there.  Sometimes, against the hopes and dreams of the medical team, the precocious baby will even latch on to a breast while the OB sutures away below the curtain.  Babies don’t know hospital policy. 

It is tough to see since I pinky swore baby would stay covered by the blanket, but the picture below is a baby skin-to-skin.

However, please be attuned to mama during this time.  She may have been vocal about skin-to-skin before the surgery.  But a cesarean is a pretty big deal.  And if she doesn’t feel able to hold her baby just then, encourage dad to hold on to baby (and not to let go!). 

7)  Last dance and farewells

Cesarean births can be a tad bloody.  Expect to see bloody guaze, perhaps some blood on the floor.  Sounds of suction.  The smells can be strong especially if the OB uses a cautery.  And it is a little unnerving when the OB and nurse count the instruments and gauze to double-check that nothing was left inside.  I have plenty of pictures to illustrate my point but I think I’ll spare you. 

Sometimes birth partner and doula are asked to return to the L&D room or recovery with the baby.  If the nurse says to put the baby in the warmer in the room, I suggest dad strip his shirt off and do his own skin-to-skin with his offspring.  Makes a nice picture for mom to see later.  

Dad should be clear about mom’s wishes for possible baby procedures.  If he isn’t sure and it is not an emergency, he would be wise to delay until mom is there.

At some point soon after, everyone is reunited.  If I’m told the policy is only one person in recovery, I pretend I didn’t hear.  Yep, I develop strange and sudden hearing loss.  I melt into the background (those nurse scrubs sure could help!) or become indispensable to someone.  I have not yet been kicked out of a room after the one-person-policy has been stated.  The same technique works for epidural placements.  Just pretend the rule doesn’t apply to you.  “Hmmm?  Who are they talking about?  Not me, surely.”  Or write intently in your client folder and don’t make eye contact.  Be invisible.  

Your job is now breastfeeding initiation.  The L&D nurse or recovery room nurse will focus on mom’s blood pressure and other vitals.  Sometimes mom needs to lie almost flat until her bp stabilizes.  But babies can still nurse.  You may need to hold a breast and hold a baby because mom might be weak or shaky.  One client tells me she remembers very little of this time but she is thankful that someone was there to (literally) support her and baby.

I hope that helps some!  Does anyone else have insights into the world of cesarean birth?  Was your doula able to accompany you?  What could have made your cesarean birth better?  What can you add?

*And a big special thanks to the families who let me share these pictures!

ETA:  By request, I’m adding a better picture of the shoe organizer.  🙂

15 responses »

  1. I wish I’d have been smart enough to have a doula with Ryleigh’s birth – then perhaps I wouldn’t have needed the cesarean! But since I did, I think there are a lot of things that could be done differently at Anmed (maybe, hopefully, they are done differently than they were almost 5 years ago!!)
    Number one being that they didn’t tell me anything that was happening other than, “you are going to feel pressure”. They didn’t warn that I would feel a huge gush of warmth between my legs from where her little head had “corked” and the amniotic fluid came rushing out (that I was supposedly very, very low on to begin with). So what did I do? Panicked and told Brian I was hemorrhaging.
    Number two being that they refused to even acknowledge me when I asked about the baby. So for what felt like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes after her birth, I had no clue whether the baby was actually a girl like she was supposed to be and why they wouldn’t show her to me. This was the biggest issue of all for me. Throughout the entire process, the doctor’s and nurses simply acted like I wasn’t there.
    Number three being that they showed her to me for a total of 2 seconds before they whisked her away.
    Number four being that I was wheeled off to “recovery” which meant to push my bed strategically between a counter with biohazard receptacles lined up on it and a stack of boxes and leave me there for an hour and a half. One nurse (that I only saw that one time and never saw again) did kindly pop in to show me pictures of my daughters amazing eyelashes that everyone was talking about. And she rubbed my shoulders which were throbbing and shaking uncontrollably from the anesthesia. But she must not have been allowed in that area, because she scampered away as soon as two other nurses came into the supply closet I was being stored in.
    Number five being that they threatened. As in… “if you don’t get up out of that bed and pee in the next 15 minutes, then you get the catheter again. And it’s not gonna be pretty without the epidural!”

    I’ve always hoped that my experience was the exception and not the norm!!!

  2. I’m glad that you pretend to be deaf and ignorant during these times. 🙂 I spoke with my sister-in-law about her second c-section. It was normal with both kids that she didn’t get to see her babies for the first hour. What? I can not imagine. I love that first hour of exploring all of their little crevices.

    My sister-in-law also said that with her recent c-section, that they did not do the epidural first before the catheter. She asked them to do the epidural first but they said they don’t do it that way in that hospital. She said she was practically crawling up the table while they did that. Not cool.

  3. I consider it Grace that I wasn’t really aware of not being able to hold my baby. I consider it tragedy that I don’t remember holding him when I finally could. I wish I’d even considered the reality of a cesaerean birth before I had one. I simply didn’t. I don’t know how a doula can tread that water. Think about it mama-to-be, a little, but don’t think about it too much. Sigh. I think it’s wonderful that you have graduated into doula-ing in the OR. I would have loved to have you there, too.

  4. Thank you for writing this! As a doula in training I’m preparing to attend my first cesarean birth later this month. The mom asked the OB ahead of time if I can be in the OR, and this hospital has a reputation for allowing a doula or photographer to come in with the partner (two support people allowed.) I was given the okay to photographer anything, to include behind the drape and the birth itself. I’m excited but nervous, so I really appreciate you sharing this information!

  5. Thanks so much. I have yet to attend a C-section and this was helpful.

  6. Julie, I think we figured out that the anesthesiologist is the one that gets to make the decision because they actually work for the hospital, where as the OB doesn’t.

    And while a section certainly wasn’t my preferred method of giving birth, your presence there made it easier. And to know that it was one more person looking out for what I wanted for baby-care was comforting.

  7. Great post, Julie! We were fortunate enough that our OB remembered that my hubby wanted to watch the ENTIRE procedure (well, up to the point that I&K were delivered) so when he was scolded by the anesthesiologist for trying to lower the “hanging drape” for a better view, she quickly jumped in to make sure Daddy’s wishes were taken care of too.

  8. Your ability to navigate tricky situations with grace and calm never ceases to amaze me. You know I’d be kicked out in a flash, even from my own section. 😉

    Also, thanks for painting this picture. I never knew how the whole thing went down.

  9. We insisted that our doula come back for our section since our baby had to go to the NICU. That way my husband could go with the baby and I wouldn’t be left alone. Something we did to help me relax was to play a cd in the OR. It was very helpful!

  10. You are exactly what I wish I had. You might have been able to save me from the slippery slope that I didn’t know enough about. My first baby was over 4 hours old before I got to hold him and try to nurse. Why couldn’t someone have helped me to hold him and nurse? We were warned to “leave him under the warmer or he will have to go to NICU” Then I was scared into a second c-section by an OB who suggested I could TRY for a vbac but would PROBABLY end up in the same boat so why not just section?

  11. Thank you for posting this, Julie. You wrote with such sensitivity and love that it almost made me cry. Sometimes I feel like people look down on mamas that have c-sections when the labor and birth process are getting kind of crazy and out of their control. It helped me heal a little more reading your post. My doulas were not allowed to come in but my midwife and hubby were. They were amazing. Thankfully, Jubal was held by daddy the whole time that I was recovering and I had lots of bonding with Jubal after that.

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  13. I think the way US hospitals treat moms is disgraceful. Here in the UK women’s arms are NEVER strapped down during C Sections as it’s not allowed here. I am shocked that this is still being done in the US in 2015. The focus here is to make C Sections are better and less frightening experience for both mom and her birth partner. I don’t understand why the US government does not intervene to stop this barbaric practise of strapping woman during surgery.
    Better UK.


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