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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Doulas, Shamanism, and Sham

where (by using Google translate) we can read about the June 2015 international midwives conference in St. Peterburg, which drew participants from the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, and other countries. This article uses the term doula in what appears to be a broader way than is usual in the U.S., where a doula is usually a “birth companion” who attends and comforts the laboring mother rather than actively focusing on the baby. We also tend to use “midwife” to describe a person trained to work with the delivery and the baby, but without the medical training of an obstetrician or a neonatologist. The Google translation as I read it seems to mix the vocabulary describing these functions.

As many readers will know, a rebound from the intense medicalization of childbirth as it took place before World War II was underway in the 1950s and increased greatly in the 1970s in the U.S. Resistance to medicalization caused some real changes, including the presence of fathers or other relatives in delivery rooms and the establishment of birthing centers that had medical services but a relaxed atmosphere where a family’s older children would be welcome. This movement, added to insurance coverage changes, led to shorter hospital stays for healthy mothers and babies. The motivation of medical facilities to please birthing families also began  not only to allow fathers or grandmothers to be present with the laboring mother, but to permit a doula who might be a friend or relation (but who might also be hired by the family) to stay with the mother and give her the help that nurses rarely have time for.  

Those of us who gave labored in isolation and gave birth while attendants shouted at us in the “old days” can appreciate the changes that have been made, and appreciate the idea of a nurturing, supportive environment during labor. Because being alone during labor is frightening for most women, having a relative or a hired companion with us seems like a wonderful idea. This swing of the pendulum to an older, less medicalized has many advantages.


Regrettably, whatever may be the attitudes of individual doulas or  midwives, organizations of these persons have a strong tendency to pursue the opposite pole from mechanistic, objectively-evaluated medical practices. Rather than simply humanizing some unnecessarily problematic medical approaches to childbirth, and reaching some sensible central position, the organizations have often gone far from center toward New Age beliefs and practices that stress subjectivity and the supernatural. This tendency is seen in the material at the link given above. For example, one recommendation has been to keep a large pyramid over the mother’s head during labor and delivery—an idea that seems directly related to Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone box” which was claimed to keep life energies from dissipating. Similarly, it was suggested that the umbilical cord and placenta should be left attached to the baby for several days after the birth, in order to “drain” back into the child all the beneficial substances that had been taken in during gestation.

The article on the St. Petersburg conference is difficult to follow because of some of the vagaries of Google translate, so I took the opportunity to look at web sites of some U.S.participants. For example, Gail Tully at mentions a number of ideas that involve rituals of sympathetic magic and shamanistic approaches--  for example, visualizing the unborn baby moving into an ideal position for birth, in order to create this desired outcome. This web site makes clear the connections between organizations of midwives and doulas and the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH).

APPPAH members promulgate a variety of beliefs about embryonic and fetal life that fail to be congruent with what is known about prenatal development or with basic assumptions of developmental studies, such as the connection between consciousness or memory and considerable advancement of nervous system maturation.  APPPAH members have claimed that the unborn human being is aware of external events from the time of conception or even before (some suggesting that each human being has memories of life in sperm form and life in ovum form). These views are quite similar to those stated by L. Ron Hubbard in Dianetics and repeated in other Scientological discussion. APPPAH has also supported and repeated the views of Lloyd DeMause, the “psychohistorian”, about the psychological pain and suffering of the fetus before and during birth, and how this trauma marks each personality and distorts its development.

Not to put too fine a point on it, when I see APPPAH links, I understand that any systematic evaluation of treatment outcomes has been abandoned by the linker. It appears to me that except for the rare individual doula or midwife, these entire professions have been contaminated by an APPPAH-like perspective on reality that abandons all scientific knowledge about prenatal life and development. In addition, the commercialization of these fields has moved them from shamanism right on to sham.

What was gained by past efforts to give families more healthy choices about the conduct of childbirth has unfortunately come to offer a choice between the simply outre’ and the outrageous and dangerous. The New Thought period has been over for many decades. It’s time for reasonable people to stand up and say we want potentially harmful alternative practices to be regulated.


  1. I also would like to mention the close link (apparently internationally) of this pro-shamanism "home birth" and "natural parenting" movements with anti-Vax movement. Both use the similar methods of psychological terror of their targets (usually the same, namely young families and mothers, including pregnant women, which may be especially vulnerable to manipulations). For example, in the so cold parental centers (clubs) and corresponding internet sites promulgating New age -linked "natural parenting" and "home birth" ideology there are spread materials aimed to deastically frighten pregnant women (and their husbands) about "horrors of official medicine", moreover the majority of this information could not been considered valid: the death of babies born at home are masked, and disadvantages of hospitals aggravated, not noticing the achieved progress. It is the same as do anti-vaxers as regards the effects of vaccines (their positive effects are hidden, while some rare negative cases strongly aggravated, the hard consequences of dangerous infections also not being discussed). At the same time it is evident that the most dangerous thing is to get under the influence of both sect-like movements, become dependent of their phobia, because it is very harmful for mental health. In this connection, it is also interesting that shaman "doula" movements usually are "anti-vax", and "anti-vax" movement usually promulgate the same "home-birth" ideology with official medicine and hospital-phobia, together with so called "alternative" (pseudoscience) New age medicine. At least in Russia it is so, but judging on "unity" between "shaman" doulas from different countries demonstrated at their international meeting (the last took place at June 2015 in Petersbourg:, these movements are similar in all countries. One of the item of the programm of this recent conference, demonsrating its link to shamanism: "
    14 of June 2015.
    11:00 -13:00
    The sacred feminine space of Amazonian tribe shapibo-kanibo - Ekatherina Ward
    Grandmothers-Mothers and Duennas - assistants in childbirth. "Radiant Peace" and "Bitter Peace" - magnets for the birth. Birth of women through the power of the sacred plant. Sacred plants in the birth practice. Ikaros - female songs of force. The ritual "Duenna of sacred vessel asks to keep her treasures".

    1. Thank you, Yulia!

      [ I found this submitted four times on the site, and I think they are all the same, so I am just posting one.]

  2. I tried some of the advice on spinningbabies with my second baby who was breach. I was willing to try almost anything not harmful lol..I also had my doctor do a version which failed. Ultimately she was born via c-section because that was the safest option and I have no regrets. Since I wanted a VBAC with my baby #3 I considered a doula but decided she would irk me during my labor. I'm a pretty good self advocate. Anyway, I agree that society tends to move from one end of the spectrum to the other with the reasonable, logical ones in the middle constantly shaking their heads.

    1. Hi Ginger-- I think the problem is with people who become so emotionally committed to these rituals that they don't give up when the effect is not what's wanted, or they refuse for ideological reasons to consider conventional treatments. And, of course, they lose their money on ineffective methods.

  3. If only money! Unfortunately, in certain cases health (of mothers and/or babies) and even life are lost. Such cases periodically happen among "home-birth" New agers in Russia, moreover they are only the "top of iceberg", many cases stay unknown, because the women victimized by these New age "doulas" (often escaping from their clients at the signs complications in labor, to avoid responsibilty) do not report on them.

    There is one more ugly thing practicized by these doulas. They use to frighten women by c-sections, the same way as with, e.g., the vaccination. For example, they influence in such a way young women, engaged in their commercial "parental centers" during pregnancy, with a good aim to prepare well herself for birth.

    Usually the women are naive and strongly get under their influence, not understanding the background, including the hawkish nature of these "natural birth trainers".

    If the woman herself was born by c-section they try to inspire her that her own mother did the "awful thing" for daughter's physical and mental health giving birth by c-section (though very often for medical reasons there simply could be another issue).

    In particular, by this tactics and other not decent ways they separate the woman from her close relatives, making the further manipulations more easy.

    This histeria arised by such "doulas" as regards the "dangers" and "harm" of "not natural" birth by c-cections somewhat remind the AT proponents with their claims of "fatal" influence of "birth" and "early ages" trauma and so on.

    I could observe these manipulations at the examples of certain young families, being unlucky to get into the hands of such New age "doulas".

    Fortunately, due to clever, careful and patient attitude of friends and relatives, understanding the harm of these sects, all these young families at last escaped from the dependence and influence of these "doulas" (though such home-birth sects know how to develop the strong dependence from them in vulnerable persons in the aim of their business). However, not revealing the details, I think it is enough to mention that both these families and their relatives (e.g.,parents) and close friends had to tolerate and survive a number of anxious moments, until the victims of "natural birth" sects at last manged to become free of their influence. The only good thing that now they are able to prevent others from making such mistakes.

    1. Thank you, Yulia-- this is all unfortunately so true, and there is much more than money at stake.