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What is a birthworker?

Sometimes we get confused looks when we start talking about birthwork and what we’re trying to build here at the Northern Birthwork Collective. People are still uncertain about what Birthworkers are, what they do, how they differ from Midwives, and why they might need one as they navigate their reproductive care.

We wanted to shed some light and share some information with you about why we advocate so passionately for this service to be available to anyone who is in need of it, especially for those who face the most harm while navigating the western medical industrial complex.

What is a Birthworker?

Birthworkers, more commonly known as Doulas, work with individuals to provide full circle support throughout the reproductive journey. Birth workers are unlike nurses, obstetricians or midwives as they do not provide any medical or obstetrical care. Birthworkers practice with a holistic approach by providing physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and informational support for both the pregnant person and their family.

There have always been people in the community who assisted with reproductive care. Indigenous birthing people have traditionally delivered their babies at home surrounded by local birth attendants (birth keepers, grandmothers, aunties and knowledge keepers) and family. Knowledge was transmitted intergenerationally and included logistics of birthing, as well as traditional medicines.

Birthworkers extend the role of traditional birth attendants by connecting birthing people to social supports, maintaining boundaries within the medical birthing experience, and supporting Indigenous birthing people to create a positive experience for themselves.

Birthworkers also advocate for the needs of the pregnant person and their family to ensure their voices are heard and birth preferences are respected. Birthworkers are companions throughout the entire reproductive journey and provide continuous support during pregnancy, birth, infant or pregnancy loss and the postpartum transition. Birthworkers practice on the foundational principles of respect, advocacy and compassion to support pregnant people and their families to have empowering experiences, as they define it.

Birthworkers meet with their clients ahead of the birth (or procedure) to build a foundation of trust. From this relationship building, they work together to formulate a plan based around the pregnant person’s needs and how they will best feel supported. This varies person to person, which is why one of the foundations of birthwork is to be client and family centred.

Birthworkers are trained to understand the physiological process of birth, as well as medical interventions, and are able to provide information, support and care to help navigate decision making. They are also trained to provide comfort measures to help navigate pain, discomfort, and the emotions that might come up throughout the reproductive journey.

Postpartum Birthworkers support families during the adjustment period of bringing a newborn home.They provide informational support on infant care, soothing and feeding, as well as emotional and spiritual support for their clients. They also provide a variety of community resources to help with concerns outside their scope that may come up. Postpartum support varies from family to family, but will also tend to include services such as light tidying, groceries, errands, and meal prep to help you find the time to bond with your baby.

Who should work with a birthworker?

Studies have revealed that having continuous support throughout pregnancy and into the postpartum period reduces the need for advanced medical interventions and caesarean section, decreases reported complications for both the birthing person and the newborn, enhances the overall birth experience and smooths the postpartum transition.

Working with a birthworker could be a good choice for you if you:

  • Hope to have an informed advocate and trusted companion present and by your side throughout pregnancy, birth, postpartum or reproductive loss

  • Want to feel more informed about the physiological process of birth, and medical procedures/interventions

  • Need support navigating the medical system

  • Need support accessing additional resources

  • Want to feel more informed about your rights as you navigate your perinatal or reproductive care

  • Have feelings of fear, worry, or concern about labour and birth and need extra support to cope with these feelings

  • Feel that your partner needs extra support in navigating this experience

  • Want a trained professional to provide comfort measures throughout your labour

  • Need extra support adjusting to the postpartum period

Birthworkers not only have the potential to improve birth outcomes but also provide holistic support. They support the birthing person and their family by being present, listening, and advocating for the family’s ability to make choices regarding the birthing process and conserve feelings of control over birth and one's body. Birthworkers recognize that birth has become a medicalized and, at times, traumatic event. They value humanising the birth experience and prioritize creating a supportive environment to ensure a positive birth experience and family transition after birth.

How can I find a birthworker in the NWT?

Unfortunately, birthwork isn’t a regulated profession, nor is it a well known one in the North. The Northern Birthwork Collective has a strategic priority to increase awareness around birthwork and it’s benefits, increase the number of birthworkers across the NWT, and to provide cost supported care to Northern pregnant and birthing people.

We primarily have Birthworkers in Yellowknife with a few others scattered across the NWT (Fort Smith, Fort Macpherson and Hay River) who are able to provide support. Most of our Birthworkers work at a limited capacity so there is not plenty of availability. If you are being evacuated from your home community to birth in Yellowknife, working with a birthworker would be a great option for you and we encourage you to get in touch with us so we can find out if there’s a birthworker available to work with you. The Northern Birthwork Collective prioritises providing cost-supported services to those who identify as Indigenous, Black, racialized or as immigrants.

Our hope is to normalise this type of support so that anyone who needs or wants extra support navigating their reproductive care is able to access a birthworker. We recognize that this will not happen overnight, but we are committed to ensuring that the voices of our community are heard.

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