Getting Your First Births: Apprenticeship

This month we are having a series of articles on ways that birth doulas can get their first few births and have some experience under their belt. In future installments, we’ll highlight other ways to do that, including volunteering, marketing and apprenticeship. If you are interested in being interviewed about how you got your first births, please contact me!

When I left my house to go to my first birth ever, I was terrified. What if I didn’t know what to do? What if I was in over my head? I wanted, more than anything, to have my doula trainer, or any of my new doula friends in my back pocket. It really was a scary sink-or-swim moment. Thankfully, I swam!

Years later my doula backups and I decided to create the kind of support and help that we wished we had when we were starting out, and we started taking on apprentices. I ran an apprentice program with other doulas and alone, for much of the next ten years. Many, but not all, of the women who went to births with me are still working in the field, and some have gone on to become home birth midwives, labor and delivery nurses, and even a CNM!

For new doulas, an apprenticeship can provide guidance and help while learning on the job. Cole Deelah of Houston Doulas put it this way “Experience can only be gained through, well, experience. When you bring women together to teach other women, that woman-to-woman wisdom cannot be taught in a classroom, or a coffee chat, or a book – it needs to be from heart to heart and hand to hand.”

Brittany Maalona of Storks and Sprouts feels like the apprenticeship program she runs helps to fill a gap between training and practice. New doulas “have a ton of knowledge and are eager to put it to work, but don’t have the hands on experience. With this being such a vulnerable time for the birthing parents they want someone who has experience, so that leaves so many people without the means to share their knowledge and passion.”

Jen Wood, a doula who recently completed an apprenticeship with DC Birth Doulas, said her apprenticeship was ” a wonderful way to gain a lot of experience in a short period of time and having a wealth of experience available at all times.”

Apprenticeship can take a lot of forms. Sometimes it’s a simple shadowing, where I brought a new doula to just observe what I do. Sometimes it’s been more formal, where we met monthly to talk about doula work as well as attending births. Sometimes I rotated an apprentice with other experienced doulas.

Finding an apprenticeship

You’ll want to apprentice with someone who has a similar philosophy and style to how you want to practice. If you’re lucky, there will be a formal apprenticeship program near you that is a good match. If not, you can approach doulas you think would be a good match and suggest working together. I do recommend that you do some research, study, and training before approaching someone to be a doula apprentice. I’ve been approached by people who “think being a doula would be cool” but have done nothing to prepare for the job and want to go to a birth THIS WEEK. I always tell them to come back when they’re ready to actually do doula work.

Because it is more work and more time to manage, teach, and give feedback to an apprentice, don’t expect that the experience will be free. Some mentors do take new doulas under their wings for free, but it’s also very common for apprentices to pay for the mentoring, either with money or with working as an agency doula for a lower fee for a time.

Because I’ve not been working with apprentices for a while now, I interviewed several doulas who are currently working in an apprenticeship program, either as a new doula learning or as an experienced mentor. From my experience and their input, I’ve put together some tips for making an apprenticeship work best for you.

Make expectations clear up front.

This is the reason I moved to a more formal apprenticeship later in my career. I wanted to have a very clear Way This Is Done, a contract, and some rules and some crystal clear expectations. It definitely worked better for me. I found that when I was charging for the apprenticeship, the new doulas we MUCH more reliable and actually willing to show up for a birth when called. Being financially committed to the program meant both of us took it more seriously, and it was beneficial all around.

You have an opportunity to learn things that may have taken her years to learn, you can condense your growth curve into an exponential learning experience. It’s worth every penny.

Sarah Smith Paksima, DC Birth Doulas

Even if you choose to do an informal shadowing arrangement, it can be helpful to have a conversation about how this will work. I once called a new doula to come to her first birth with me and she asked me when I would be picking her up! I had assumed she would drive herself, she assumed I would pick her up as she had no access to a car several days a week. A simple conversation about expectations could have avoided this! (And for the record, I did not pick her up, as the geography meant it would delay my arrival to my client by about an hour, and I was not okay with that. She missed that birth.)

Remember your role

When working with an experienced doula, remember that you are there to learn. If you have a different opinion or approach, that’s good! (I believe in thinking for yourself and doing things your own way) But save your way of doing things for when you are working with your own clients, and stay in the apprentice role when you’re working with your mentor.

Sarah Smith Paksima with DC Birth Doulas recommends that you “Be willing to do whatever she asks you to do. You should view this opportunity as an investment in your education. You will learn so much more from watching and modeling an experienced doula than you ever could from reading books and watching videos… Also appreciate what she is doing by sharing her knowledge and client space with you. This is a gift. Go out of your way to accommodate her and her clients needs. Be enthusiastic, dependable, reliable, and helpful.”

Remember to keep the client first

It can be easy to be thinking about what you’re learning, and to have lots of questions about the why and how behind what the experienced doula is doing. Keep the birthing family’s experience at the forefront, and save questions and discussion for a debriefing later. Write down your questions and comments to ask later. It was not uncommon for me to go get food with my apprentice afterward to talk about how things went, give feedback and answer questions. You can ask about debriefing opportunities when you have your conversation about expectations.

As an experienced doula, I once has to ask an apprentice to leave when the parents became uncomfortable with her incessant chit chat at a birth, even after I’d asked her to be quiet. This apprentice had a hard time accepting that, and kept texting the client throughout the rest of the birth asking if she could come back. I suspect she never even left the hospital. This was frustrating, distracting and annoying to my clients. She and I had to have a serious talk about respect for client decisions and the fact that the birth was not about her learning experience.

Cole Deelah summed it up nicely “Our work is all about heart and hands – if you can’t approach clients, your community, and your peers with humble gratefulness for what we do, this might not be the business for you. We aren’t in the business of being the center of the birthing experience, but lifting up those we serve to be the center of the experience.”

Be reliable

Show up – on time! – to any scheduled prenatals, meetings with your mentor, promotional events, etc. Be reachable for births. Answer calls, texts and emails from clients or from your mentor promptly. Take being on call seriously and be prepared for a birth to come at any time. And definitely don’t ghost your mentor when she calls you to a birth! (Happened to me, twice.) If you say you will do something for a client or for your mentor, follow through quickly. Remember that when you are apprenticing with a doula, your actions reflect on her. Build her reputation, don’t make her look bad.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

If your plans change, if you get sick and are temporarily unable to attend a birth, or you decide doula work is not for you, talk about those issues with your mentor proactively. I later learned that one of the doula apprentices who ghosted when I called her to a birth had done so because her car was in the shop and she had no way to get there. So she just turned her phone off when I called. If she had let me know what was going on when her car first started giving her trouble, we could have figured out an alternative, I could have let the client know about a change in plans, etc. Instead I was left frustrated and angry, and the client had a sudden change in her birth plan at the last minute. A little proactive communication would have gone a long way!

I also found it very helpful to have a secure online place where we could share information. So my client’s basic information (address, phone number, place of delivery, EDD, etc), birth plan, doula notes and contact log were accessible to either of us from our smart phones.

Doula apprenticeships are a great way to get experience with births and have someone else nearby to learn from. You will get the chance to swim and have someone nearby to watch your back and teach you. If I were just starting out with doula work today, I would certainly look for and invest in an apprenticeship program.

In writing this article, I spoke with Sarah and Jen Wood from the DC Birth Doulas Apprentice Doula Program, Brittany Maalona of Stork And Sprout and Cole Deelah from Sage Beginnings. I am grateful for their time and willingness to share.

Scroll to Top