Overnight Support

Ten things I learned in my first six months of providing overnight support

June 12, 2022

The needs and preferences of families vary from house to house, and may change from the time you interview to be a postpartum doula to the time the baby arrives and you actually start. Here are a few things I learned in my first six months of working overnight.

  1. Confirm you are coming.

If there has been more than three days in between the scheduling of and the arrival of an overnight shift, I like to confirm I’m coming the day before my arrival. If it’s my first time visiting the home, I’ll confirm the address, ask about parking, and map out my route so I know how long it will take to get there from my place.

The subject of pets usually comes up during the consultation, but if it hasn’t now is a good time to ask. Luckily I don’t have any allergies to cats or dogs, but if you do, you’ll want to take something so that you are comfortable, or refer the client to another doula in your community. Your comfort is as important as your client’s! This is not slavery, damnit – it’s mutual aid.

Confirm again 2-3 hours before your scheduled arrival. Right before confirming, I’d self-test for COVID-19 with a rapid antigen test. If all is well, I send a text letting the family know I will see them in a few.

  1. Get enough rest in the days leading up to your overnight.

Get a full night’s rest the evening before your overnight and sneak in a few hours before your shift. If you are a birth doula and a postpartum doula, the arrival of a baby will disrupt your ability to do this from time-to-time. Make sure you have a back-up for both your birth client and your postpartum client, just in case one gig bleeds into the other.

I sometimes like to start the night by sleeping if baby is asleep when I arrive, and if parents are heading to bed. The night can be unpredictable, so getting those z’s in early is clutch. If the little is awake, I might put them in a carrier or let them stay in the crib or bassinet while I do some light cleaning, if that is in the contract.

I like to have at least one night in between overnights so that I can reset and process the things that happened that night. Speaking of processing…

  1. Take notes.

You can do this anyway you like. On your phone, with pen and paper, mentally for the time being. I’m used to doing this during births when I’m bedside, but I started doing so during overnights just recently. If I observe anything with the baby that I am not familiar with, I can be sure to run it by their parents. If I am working with the family long term, I have a written record of baby’s progression from week to week. 

I’ve found it helpful to review the notes when helping other families because I have a sense of what to expect during those very early days when things are changing so rapidly. Even though each child is different and may behave differently, there are some physiological things that are pretty standard, such as the number of days it takes for the umbilical cord to fall off.

  1. Ask birthing person how they are healing up.

Sometimes I wonder why families hire a doula as opposed to a nanny for overnight care. The answer is simple: we are close to birth and know what recovery looks like. That being said, overnights are an opportunity to decompress from the birth experience by talking about it. 

Checking in with the parents can push them deeper into caring for themselves. It might remind them to purchase that Frida Mom package, or ask their obstetrician about some lower back pain they are experiencing, or schedule a visit with a lactation consultant. We are the village that supports the child, but in doing so, we must support the parents. I like to be sure the birth person, partner, family, and pets feel seen before I take the baby into the nursery.

  1. Pack yourself a midnight snack!

Believe it or not, you’ll get hungry in the middle of the night. I’m not sure if it’s due to watching baby eat every few hours or what, but I normally bring a few snacks, or a whole meal with me to overnight shifts. Since it’s nighttime and I’m usually doing pretty sedentary activities, I sometimes forget to drink water. Don’t be like me! If you are a canteen kind-of person, keep that thang nearby.

  1. Timing feedings for baby.

If you are bottle feeding, timing heating up the milk can be tricky. What we don’t want is a hungry fussy baby in the middle of the night. I try to stay ahead of the hunger, and feed baby as soon as I see them stirring, rooting and gnawing on their cute little hands, or smacking. All of these are early hunger cues.

I’ll work from the longest prep times to the shortest here. If I am using pre-pumped milk that is frozen, I’ll set all the milk I need for the night out on the counter to thaw for an hour, then stick it in the fridge until I need it.

If the family uses hot water to heat this milk, I will stick the bottle in hot water thirty minutes before I think I will need it, changing the water over at the fifteen minute mark. Pro tip here is to find something heavy to keep the bottle fully submerged without letting water into the container.

If the family uses a steam-powered bottle warmer, I only need to prep the bottle ten minutes before I think I’ll need it.

When working with formula, one of my families boils water before I arrive, and places it in a thermos. I use a fifty-fifty mixture of hot water and room temperature water in the bottle, then I add in the formula and shake the bottle up. Prep time for this is five minutes.

If your birth family is using a Baby Brezza (machine that heats and mixes formula for you in a matter of seconds) prep time is 2 minutes and you can make the bottle with one hand. Simply enter the amount of ounces you’d like, press a button and boom you have milk.

  1. Feed yourself.

Bring something to eat for yourself. Sometimes your birth families will have you to help yourself to whatever is in the fridge. If that is the case, assemble meals for yourself within reason. If you are like me, and are sensitive to sounds, you might want to bring your own meal. I tend to pack something that I can just pull out of my bag and eat: baked yams, a sandwich, pasta salad, anything that tastes good at room temperature. I don’t like using microwaves and turning on the stove in the middle of the night is out of the question for me so I stick to these simple snacks.

  1. Feeding the family.

If you like to experiment with postpartum foods, you have the perfect audience upon which to test your recipes. I’d say start with baked goods like lactation cookies, then move on to other dishes. Be sure to ask about allergies and if there are severe allergies in the family, forget about this suggestion.

Make sure you are being compensated for your efforts if asked to prepare meals for anyone besides the baby. Discuss it during the consultation and spell it out in the contract.

  1. Have an emergency plan.

New born babies don’t do much, but it is never a bad idea to have an emergency plan in place in case something comes up. In the event you notice the signs of an allergic reaction, it’s good to have a plan in place. Would the parents like for you to text them? Knock on their door? Just come into the room? Talk about it so that you know what to do.

  1. Clean-up.

I always leave the family with as many clean bottles as I can. About an hour before my shift is done, I’ll clean all the bottles I have used and put them in the sterilizer (if they have one) or rinse them in scalding hot water before setting them out to dry. It’s important to ask your families what their bottle cleaning process is. It can help with families who are managing thrush or any other possible oral infection.

If you are expected to do any light housekeeping, you’ll want to discuss this during the consultation and add it to your contract so that you are compensated for your efforts. Clearing the sink of dishes and folding baby clothes are tasks I will complete without being asked.

I hope this post will be helpful to you whether you are a doula, or thinking about hiring a doula to support your family during this transitory time.

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