• Lacey Bauer

The Doula Hospital Bag

It seems as though there's a ritual start to joining the doula industry and that's to post on a large forum asking experienced doulas "What should I pack in my hospital bag as a doula?" No fewer than half a dozen of these prompts flash across my screen as I scroll through my feed each week.

It brings me back to the first year in my career as a doula lugging around an oversized backpack filled to the brim with...well, everything. I had a couple of small items for myself like my wallet and a sweater, but most of this space was occupied by all the little trinkets that were encouraged of me to pack by other doulas. So I did, dutifully. I spent time curating the perfect Mary Poppins bag that would surely get me and my clients through any scenario. Lotions, tennis balls, honey sticks, combs, battery-operated tea lights, a rebozo, lavender oil, a birth ball, new hair ties and chapsticks, a massage tool, and more. The further I dug into that black-zippered back, the more I found.

This bag became my security blanket. Its size physically hid my body as I took my first births in various hospitals in the region, keeping me from being noticed too much as I walked through the halls searching for the right door; the inner anxiety making me hope I could slink away and pack myself into this bag.

But, birth after birth came and went. In moments of uncertainty, I would dig through that bag, without any particular idea in mind, in hopes that its contents would jump into my hands to tell me what to do. "Lacey, it's quiet in the room. Fill the space. Do something. They're paying you to stay busy. If you don't come up with something soon they're going to consider you useless. Are you even trying hard enough?"

As I gained experience, my mind settled & suddenly the zipper on that bag stayed shut more and more. I attuned to the environment. I watched for what was actually being needed or asked for, trusting that the quiet moments were signs of my client coping beautifully. I learned that my own presence could be a hindrance, an intervention in ways. Or, I could choose for it to be a strong, steady energy that moved with the ebbs and flows of the journey; having the wisdom and maturity to sit back and hold space when necessary and the attunement and focus to know when to jump in to offer comfort or a reassuring voice when the moments called for it.

It was about a year in when one day I realized that bag hadn't been opened in 6 months or so. I carefully opened it one day at home and finally made the decision that if these things haven't been utilized in such a long time, I would challenge myself to attend a few births without and see what happened. Spoiler alert, nothing about my support changed. I learned to trust myself, to recognize that I was enough. My skills, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, and empathy was the benefit of my presence, not a backpack filled with cheap tricks.

When the question of the doula birth bag arises, I have a few insights that years of this work in not having one has taught me.

  1. Safety Can the objects in this bag that you intend to use on your clients be sanitized? Bloodborne pathogens are a real occupational hazard that clients shouldn't be worried about being exposed to because of tools/objects you intend to share between clients. Some of these pathogens can live on surfaces for days or even weeks. Okay, so you clean the object itself between clients? Well, is the bag that you stuffed all the dirtied items in also being sanitized?

  2. Not always being the "fix" Doulas have a tendency to want to fix all the things, even going so far to try to make themselves the solution to all of their client's problems. Cue the image above of me digging around in my bag as a way to say "Bag, tell me what's next!", believing that if I have all the right tools with me, nothing can go wrong. They'll have the perfect birth. Stop having more faith in an inanimate object than the knowledge in your brain, the comfort and warmth in your hands, and the compassion and empathy in your heart that allows you to speak words of affirmation and reassurance. Honey sticks and hair ties can't replace that intuitive ability to truly support. Stop hiding behind the bag to "fix" when that's not what we're hired for nor is there anything to fix.

  3. Client Empowerment I like to empower my clients to take ownership over their own birth experience by helping them curate a list of things they might find helpful for their upcoming labor and delivery to pack in their bag and ensure their own comfort. Most importantly, they don't have to wait for me to arrive to be able to have access to those items. Let's think: a client is being induced and they're feeling some slight discomfort in their low back, especially after a night of sleeping in the bed while a cervical ripener was placed. They are really wanting to use that tennis ball you mentioned to create counter pressure by laying on it while they stay in bed to nap, but they're not at a place where they're ready for you to come. It's still early. But, you have the tennis ball because of the fancy bag you promised you'd bring. Now what? The client either doesn't get the comfort tool they want or they're forced to call you in earlier than they want for a fifty-cent tool they could have purchased and packed themselves. I am not okay with the idea that my client can't have access to the comfort techniques and items they want for their birth unless I'm there to give it to them. It's a weird sense of control and a savior mentality over that experience that feels icky to me. So, we work together to help them pack the items they want and they get to use them as soon as possible without feeling obligated for me to arrive. Even more important to remember, hospitals have most of the items I need as the doula to provide comfort. I'll use a basin with ice, water, and washcloths to act as cold packs, instant hot packs for warmth or a disposable diaper filled with hot water as a warm compress, a sheet for tug-o-war during pushing, pillows to prop the client in bed and separate the legs. All of the facilities I work at have birth and peanut balls available. If yours doesn't, consider making a charitable contribution from your business of a few of each as a way to network and build relationships with the unit administrators & managers. They'll be so grateful and you can build the cost into your marketing budget. Learn to be resourceful and tap into the room around you. These facilities often have more than enough items for us to get creative and use what's available without having to lug specialty items in ourselves.

So then, what do I pack? My purse includes my wallet with ID and cash, cell phone, charging cable, water bottle, mints/gum, a couple of snacks, medications, menstrual products, fresh shirt and pants in case I get wet, a sweater if it's cold, and toothbrush/paste & deodorant to freshen up. That's all I've packed now for 9 years and I have never left a birth experience thinking "Goodness, if only I had _________, things would have looked different." At no point when a client calls in labor do I have to wonder if my hospital bag is currently packed with the items they specifically had interested in. Because my bag is for me, so I can care for myself as I care for my clients.

Trust your skills, be resourceful in the space you find yourself in, and spend time prenatally helping guide clients through conversations about what they might find useful. If we don't do this in other areas of doula work (you wouldn't see a postpartum doula arrive with bag full of diapers, a breast pump, baby carrier, bottles, or even swaddles) then why do we insist on doing the same for labor clients?

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