Have you ever wondered what goes on at night when a night doula works with a family? Curious about how a postpartum doula can help your family at night?
The idea behind having a night doula is to help with the nighttime parenting duties so families get more rest at night. This makes sure they have the energy they need to get through the busy days of taking care of newborns and small infants. We are sometimes called a night nanny or an overnight doula.
Tonight I was called an angel!
Where do the doula and baby go all night?
Right now, as I type this, it is 2AM. The steady shush of the baby’s white noise machine can be heard through the monitor that sits beside me on the bed. I’m in a guest room tonight but sometimes families have me hanging out in the living room, a rec room or in baby’s room.
Sometimes the babies are next to me in a bassinet on a different floor from the parents. And, sometimes baby is in their own room. Tonight I’m down the hall from the baby who is in their own room. Mom is in the basement rec room so she can get a solid night’s sleep. Her best friend is on the sofa on the main floor. We’re all working together to help Mom and the baby get lots of sleep – and prevent overwhelm – while Dad is away on a business trip. For other families I may come ever weeknight for the first few months so the new parents can get something resembling a normal sleep.
on this night, I arrived at 10pm. Mom looked tired and was relieved when I arrived. She’d pumped enough milk to get us through the night and showed me where the bottles were. We talked for a little while and she headed down to her bed while I headed up to be near the baby.
This baby isn’t known for sleeping well. And, at 6 weeks old, they are right in the middle of the evening fussy stage. They had their last bottle at 7pm but hadn’t gotten more than about 30 minutes of sleep before I arrived. Mom expected the baby to wake for a bottle very soon.
What does the doula do all night?
With the monitor at my side I opened up my laptop to get a bit of work done. I like to be productive during any downtime I might have during an night doula shift. I caught up on my to do list while the baby occasionally squirmed, squeaked and grunted.
As a night doula I am pretty good at knowing which noises and movements are a normal part of baby’s sleep and which means it is time to go in to change and feed the baby. Babies have sleep cycles just like adults and sometimes they move and wake but most will fall back asleep if you give them a few minutes. You’d be surprised at how much noise babies make when they sleep.
My little friend had a lot of moments of noise and movement.
None lasted more than a few seconds and then they fell into a deeper sleep for a while. Just before 1AM the baby didn’t settle back down and kept fussing. It was time for a little intervention.
Up out of the crib, I brought the baby over to the change table. They fussed a little harder as they woke up and looked around. The room was full of shadows. I’d left a light in the hallway on and the baby’s door was ajar so I didn’t wake the baby up too much. After a diaper change we settled into a rocker and I gave the baby a bottle.
After pausing twice to burp, the baby’s eyes began to roll back in their head as they finished the last of the milk. One more burp and I cuddled baby close. We rocked and I gave my little friend a soother. In a short while I was sure baby had fallen back to sleep. Into the crib they went. I stayed for a few minutes there at the side of the crib with my hand on the baby’s chest. I could feel the baby breathing and waited a few minutes for the stirring to still before taking my hand away.
Closing baby’s door, I turned off the hallway light and headed to the kitchen. I rinsed the bottle I’d used and got a fresh one. The pumped milk would warm up a little while waiting for baby’s next feed.
What about breastfed babies?
When a parent wishes to breastfeed or chestfeed their baby I will often text the parent when the baby wakes to nurse. Sometimes I just bring baby to the parents’ room, knock quietly and call the nursing parent’s name. The mom usually texts me back to announce that the feed is over. I scoop baby up and continue on helping them settle and stay asleep.
Back upstairs I went back to the guest room where I was stationed for the night. Again, baby fussed occasionally but always settled back down. And I returned to my laptop to get a little work completed. Around 3AM I pulled out the snack I’d brought and quietly ate to the sound of the shushing monitor and random squeak and grunt.
The next time the baby fussed but didn’t settle back down was a little after 4AM. I could see the baby on the monitor pulling their legs up repeatedly as if working out a little gas. I could also see a little hand up by the mouth where my little squirmy friend had defied the velcro wrap. I would have to re-wrap it a bit tighter next time.
Do you just sit up all night awake?
This time after feeding the baby a bottle of breastmilk and getting them settled back to sleep, I set an alarm for myself and closed my eyes for a little while. If baby is settled, I will usually sleep a little, too. I’m being paid to respond to baby when they need me so that their parents can get a full night’s rest. Whether I’m awake for the entire night or nap for an hour or two between feeds and diaper changes makes little difference to me or the parents. Their priority is getting as much sleep in a row as they can. When they sleep well at night they function better during the day.
When my alarm went off baby was still sleeping soundly. If all went well they still had another hour of sleep left in them. I gathered up my things, tidied up the space and went downstairs. The mother came into the kitchen, as did her best friend. A rundown of what happened on the shift was given and I offered some advice.
I recommended this mother turn off her baby monitor and allow the baby to fuss a little. If the baby needed food or a diaper change they would continue fussing and grow louder and a little angrier. But, I suspected that this frequent waking baby wasn’t really waking up half of the time and instead slipping between sleep cycles and the loving mother was mistaking the noises and movement for an awake baby. “If you leave the monitor off when you sleep on the same floor you will wake less often and so will baby.”
The mother nodded at the advice, taking it in. As I gathered my things to leave she turned to me and said, “I don’t know when the last time I slept that well was. I feel amazing! Can you come back in a couple of days?” I could!
Her friend shouted over from the sofa, “You’re an angel! I don’t know how people have babies and don’t have someone like you to help?!” I smiled. It wasn’t the first time me or my team were called angels and I was certain it wouldn’t be the last. I don’t know if I’m an angel, but I sure do love what I do and I love helping parents feel strong and capable after getting a full night of sleep.