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Photo courtesy Open Arms Perinatal Services.

Open Arms: Seattle nonprofit supports mothers who need it most

Having a doula for the birth her first child, in 2015, made Sahra Malin decide to become a doula herself.  Going without a doula for the birth of her second child proved to her how much difference a doula with open arms makes.

A doula is a trained health-care worker who provides one-on-one support to expectant and postpartum mothers, advises families about what to expect, and advocates for mothers when interacting with health-care teams.

During her first birth, Malin appreciated how her doula supported her emotionally and helped her husband support her emotionally.

Because she went into premature labor, she wasn’t able to arrange for a doula for her second birth, in 2017.

Even though she was a doula by this point, and is a hyper-capable person (these days she juggles full-time nursing studies at UW with doula work and raising two kids under age 5), she could not keep track of what was happening.

“I was really confused what was going on and why it was going on. I don’t remember what was going on,” she says.

“I feel really bad for laboring people who go into this new chapter in their life without having this extra layer of support. I want to make that change in the community.”

Open Arms Perinatal Services is dedicated to making that change. The local nonprofit (who provided Malin her first doula and now employs her) provides community-based doula support for families living with poverty. It supports about 300 births per year, matching clients with personally and culturally compatible doulas. It can support 17 languages.

Through its community-based outreach doula program, it pairs Somali, Latinx, African American and American Indian/Alaska Native mothers with compatible doulas, supporting the familes from the second trimester until age 2. Compared to similar mothers in Washington state, those participating in the Open Arms program have lower rates of low-birth-weight infants, fewer unplanned C-sections, and higher breastfeeding rates.

Along with the main office of Open Arms, they help mothers find supplies, such as clothing, diapers and formula, and connect with other social services.

Malin says that without a doula, many of her Somali clients hesitate to ask questions, or to demand explanations when they don’t understand something.

“Back home there’s not a lot of ultrasound, prenatal visits and postpartum visits. It’s very different,” Malin says. Some of her clients don’t know what a cesarean section is. Health-care providers can be dismissive, and even when they are friendly, it’s still hard for immigrant patients to speak up.

“I’ve had a lot of Somali clients and other immigrants say ‘Wow, Sahra, I didn’t know I could do this. I didn’t know the doctors would listen to what I have to say.’”

Sometimes it’s not just the health-care professionals who need to listen.

“I had a client where there was a lot of tension in the room coming from her care provider, her partner, her mom, her sister — everyone was telling her what to do. The tension was very hard for her in her progressing labor, so I was able to clear the room.” Malin says.  “Everyone just left the room. Everyone took it very well.”

Breana Davis, a doula and the Birth Doula Services Program Coordinator for Open Arms, says her role is to support mothers, honor their choices, and counteract the judgment and shaming that too often comes with mothering in America.

“I kind of see my role as normalizing parenting and normalizing accessing help when you need help.”

She also provides a lot of information that they need.

“A lot of time with prenatal care, our clients don’t necessarily get all the information a white parent would get.”

An increasing number of American women die in childbirth. More than 700 women die in childbirth each year. In at least 60 percent of cases, the deaths are preventable, but the rate is on the rise. It grew more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2014. The death rate of black women giving birth is three times that of white women. Giving mothers an advocate who looks after them, makes sure they are heard and understood, and who connects them with services is a big step toward ensuring that mothers stay healthy.

“My role as a doula is critical,” Malin says.