Doulas help guide and translate the pregnancy process for expats

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It’s a Friday afternoon and eight women in various stages of pregnancy lounge in a circle on the floor. Some are leaning against pillows to support their baby bumps. Others are fully reclined on cushions. They snack on a bowl of fruit and drink tea as Anna Vrsnik speaks in a soft voice.

The women are participating in a doula workshop at A Centrum in Karlin. For the past two hours, Vrsnik and Silvie Rosenova have been guiding the group through what they can expect in the weeks leading up to the birth of their babies.

Doulas generally provide additional emotional support and advice to women as they go through pregnancy and eventual labor. They can assist in smaller tasks, like translation or prenatal counseling, and can be present during the birth and the postpartum period. In many ways, they fill in the gaps left by doctors and midwives, who are the typical primary care providers for women when they give birth in hospitals.

While the doula profession has been around for almost two decades, the popularity of using doulas during pregnancy has grown among both Czechs and expatriates in Prague in the past years.

“It started as more of alternative medicine, but nowadays it’s becoming normal and mainstream,” Rosenova says.

This rise in popularity came at the same time many hospitals in the Czech Republic were changing their approach to childbirth. Pregnant women were seeking better emotional support during labor and many hospitals were facing harsh criticism for their quality of service, according to Vrsnik. So some hospitals began cooperating with doulas.

“Still, I think there is a lot of confusion about what a doula is,” Vrsnik says.

Vrsnik and Rosenova break it down. The main people who attend to pregnant women when they go into labor are midwives and doctors. Midwives are the most specialized in the physiological process of labor, while the doctor is usually a pathology expert who helps in cases where surgery might be needed.

The relationship between the two is very different depending on the hospital. Often midwives change shifts multiple times during one delivery and are tending to four or more women in addition to taking care of administrative work. This means a woman going through labor might only see her midwife once every hour until she is ready to start pushing.

“If you do not have a partner or someone with you, you can be there alone,” Vrsnik says.

Enter the doula, whose main focus is on the mother.

Doulas must have at least one to two years of specialized training. In addition to helping prepare parents for their new baby, doulas in Prague also can be a trusted navigator for foreigners making their way through the Czech healthcare system for the first time. Many foreigners having babies in the Czech Republic are often surprised at the low level of English speakers in many hospitals, according to Vrsnik.

There are currently six actively working English-speaking doulas in the city who can help expecting mothers with everything from translation to registering at a hospital. Rosenova recalls acting as a translator for a client because she was getting so frustrated with her midwife, who didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand her. “We know a lot of hospitals and what the women want, so it’s easier to have a doula rather than deal with strangers,” she says.

Doulas are also handy when selecting which maternity hospital to give birth. Every hospital’s approach is different, and doulas are the best experts on where to register. “I see some foreigners register in some of the very well-known hospitals, but they don’t know what it looks like inside,” Rosenova says. “It’s difficult to tell what the facilities are really like from the websites.”

Expats can also hire postpartum doulas, who help the mother in the six weeks following the birth. “It’s very good to think about the period after labor because sometimes we’re so focused on the labor that we forget about the postpartum,” says Rosenova, who works with many postpartum clients.

Many foreigners look to these doulas to fill in for family members or friends who live too far away to provide extra support. “They call it mothering the mother,” Vrsnik says.

Finding the right doula is important. The best place to look for one is online through Facebook groups or at workshops like the one at A Centrum. “Every doula is different,” Vrsnik says, “when you are choosing your doula, you must fall in love with that doula.”

Since becoming a doula five years ago, Vrsnik has worked with 150 clients. Over the years, she’s had many wonderful memories. One of her recent favorites was of a mother who, after previous traumatic experiences, was able to catch her own baby in her hands during labor.

“She said it was the moment of her life!” Vrsnik says, smiling. “I feel like with every labor I have a chance to make better, that baby has a better start to life.”

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