Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

“If cabin pressure should change, panels above your seat will open revealing oxygen masks; reach up and pull a mask towards you. Place it over your nose and mouth, and secure with the elastic band, that can be adjusted to ensure a snug fit. Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

For those of us that have ever flown on an airplane, the above speech is familiar. That last sentence is one that often comes with eye rolls from parents. It is our instinct to help our children first, right? This topic comes up a lot in my postpartum doula trainings and when I am working with new families. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others.

I believe that most doulas are “servants” by nature. We are givers, supporters, helpers, so it can become challenging to convince those in our profession to make their own lives a priority. Some feel selfish for taking a vacation or saying “no” to a client that wants them to work more than they are able. If we are giving advice to our clients to “put their oxygen masks on first”, don’t you think it’s also important for us to do the same? We cannot give from an empty cup!

Here are some suggestions I give to my postpartum doula trainees to ensure they are taking care of their needs and avoid burnout:

1. Remember, “no” is a powerful word. Don’t be afraid to use it to set boundaries.

2. When setting your calendar, put your vacations, important family events, doctor appointments, etc. on the calendar first. Let the clients fill in the gaps. If you don’t do this, you will likely miss some special moments and become resentful.

3. Choose an activity for yourself each day that makes you feel good, allows you to decompress, and re-energizes you. Ideally, this activity should last at least 30 minutes. Activities could be yoga, hiking, journaling, reading a good book, crafting, or taking a hot bath (my personal favorite)! Whatever it is, put it on your daily calendar so it becomes part of your schedule.

4. Reward yourself at the end of each contract. Set aside some money from each signed/paid contract to do something special for yourself once you have fulfilled your contracted duties. Massage, chiropractic care, mani/pedi, dinner at your favorite restaurant, are examples of rewards you can give yourself. What do you LOVE to do and would be something you would want to look forward to after a long birth or postpartum job?

5. Have a good mentor. Someone you can depend on, get guidance from, and will hold you accountable. Nobody understands this profession like another doula, so having a mentor and/or local doula network can really help you get through rough times and help you celebrate the good times! This support is invaluable.

If we are to really be the best doulas we can be, the best people we can be, the best parents, friend, spouse/partner we can be, we have to take care of ourselves. It is not selfish. It is necessary.

Darla Burns


Darla has been supporting women and families as a birth doula since 1990 and was certified by DONA in 2003. Finding that she also loved working with the families after they delivered, she then became a CAPPA certified postpartum doula in 2004. Soon thereafter, she became a certified childbirth educator and lactation educator. Her love of working with families and sharing her knowledge with others led her to her position as a faculty member for CAPPA. When she’s not doing doula work, she spends her time with her husband and two great kids.

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