A recent study by the federal government validates BirthMatters and other community-based doula programs by showing how they increase breast-feeding rates and decrease cesarean section rates for young, low-income mothers.
For the past seven years, BirthMatters has offered community-based doula support free for low-income mothers under 21. Although the term “doula” is more widely known now than it was when the program first started in 2007, BirthMaters Executive Director Molly Chappell-McPhail said education is still a large part of her role.
About 75 percent of BirthMatters clients are referrals from mothers who receive BirthMatters services, so Chappell-McPhail still thinks a broader section of the community could benefit from community-based doulas.
“There are certainly families out there who could benefit from our services, and we want to reach out to them,” Chappell-McPhail said. “We offer high-touch, high-quality services — we see our 'mothers' once a week so we're spending a lot of time with families.”
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A doula is not a midwife. Instead, a community-based doula is a woman who lives in the community where she provides services, and provides support and education throughout a woman's pregnancy. A doula doesn't provide clinical services.
BirthMatters is financed by the March of Dimes, the United Way, Mary Black Foundation and the Spartanburg Regional Foundation, along with other organizations.
The report, “The Perinatal Revolution” by HealthConnect One, was supported by a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant and focuses on eight community-based sites, including BirthMatters.Chappell-McPhail said the research is important because it offers measurements and data outcomes to substantiate the difference BirthMatters and other community-based doula programs are making across the nation.
BirthMatters is the only community-based doula program in South Carolina.
“The most compelling data findings were the high breast-feeding rates and low C-section rates achieved by the community-based doula programs implementing this model,” the report states. “Women supported by a high-quality community-based doula program breast-fed their babies at dramatically higher rates, with women in the program sometimes breast-feeding at twice the rate of the comparison group. These data reinforce equally strong findings from the original pilot of this program led by HealthConnect One in Chicago. The fact that community-based doulas work with very disadvantaged populations makes these findings even more significant.”
BirthMatters has one full-time doula, Amber Pendergraph, and another doula who works part-time. Pendergraph has been a “lifesaver” for Drekia Foster, a teenager who is expecting her first child in December.
Erika Lyles, who will be Foster's child's grandmother, said Pendergraph visits with the family once a week and is in constant contact with Foster by phone throughout the week. Pendergraph also attends doctor's appointments with Foster and answers any questions the family has.
It's Pendergraph's job to tell expectant mothers what to expect during doctor's appointments, ultrasounds and to provide support and guidance.
“Knowledge is power,” Pendergraph said. “It's all about empowering families and telling them they have choices and have people who support them.”Pendergraph tells Foster, and her other “moms,” that it's important to carry their babies to full term and that it's OK to question a physician if they recommend an early induction or C-section.
It's important for Pendergraph to be honest to her “mothers,” and she doesn't take for granted that some might not know exactly how their anatomy works.
“Some don't know what their cervix is and it's completely normal to ask questions,” Pendergraph said.
When the baby is born, Pendergraph is there during the birth providing support for the mother and other family members.
Pendergraph preaches the importance of “skin-to-skin” contact right after birth between the baby and the mother to encourage bonding.
BirthMatters mothers have an 80 percent breast-feeding rate at birth — a practice Pendergraph heavily emphasizes.
“Studies have shown that the baby's IQ will be higher, they're better bonded with mothers,” Pendergraph said. “Plus, it saves money for the mother in the long run and will help the mothers lose weight.”