State College Doula supports families through childbirth and beyond

Doula Maria Stevens, owner and founder of State College Doula, meets with a client on July 3 in State College.
Doula Maria Stevens, owner and founder of State College Doula, meets with a client on July 3 in State College.

Maria Stevens recently stopped counting the number of births she’s been part of, but the founder and owner of State College Doula doesn’t expect the novelty to ever wear off.

“It’s an absolute honor every time to be invited into somebody’s birth space — one of the most important days of their lives,” Stevens said.

Once, “it takes a village” was the model behind child rearing. Absent of that village in modern society, more families are turning to doulas before and after a baby arrives. Since 2015 in central Pennsylvania, parents have had the option of State College Doula, a full-service agency with a team of five doulas that includes Stevens, Rebekah Carswell, Kristina Cahill, Denae Vigilante and Emily Boone.

“We come from a variety of training organizations and backgrounds, so we bring a variety of experiences,” Stevens said.

A mother of three, Stevens became more interested in childbirth after she had her first child, now 7. She became certified as a doula through Childbirth International and was a solo doula for a number of years before forming the company.

“More and more people are choosing doula support,” said Stevens, who had a doula for her third child. “It can be hard to explain to somebody what kind of difference it makes until you’ve done it.”

After giving birth twice without a doula, Jessa Miller used Stevens when she had her third child in February 2015.

“It was my best birth,” Miller said. “It was so different in the sense that I felt really safe, and I felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything else.”

Though doulas are growing in popularity, Stevens admits there’s still plenty of misconceptions. They aren’t just for home births — Stevens said the majority of State College Doula clients give birth in the hospital — or for unmedicated births. They’re also completely non-medical; you won’t see a stethoscope or blood pressure cuff. Instead, Stevens said the focus is on providing support and care so that clients and their partners have the best birth experience possible.

Allison Hulings, of Brockport, sought out State College Doula in her second trimester. As a gestational surrogate, she anticipated needing extra support in the delivery room. When she was admitted to Penn Highlands DuBois two weeks ago, she called her doula, Vigilante, who met her at the hospital and stayed for the next 20 hours.

“She was wonderful,” Hulings said. “I would never want to give birth without a doula again. ... She gave me a lot of pain management and emotional support.”

Women who use State College Doula services at any stage of pregnancy are assigned two doulas — a birth doula and back-up doula. There’s a string of prenatal appointments where birth plans and preferences are discussed, and when labor occurs, the doula or back-up doula arrive for however long it takes. Doctors, midwives and nurses provide medical care, but Stevens said a doula is the professional trained in nonstop support of a woman’s emotional well-being and physical comfort during birth.

“We kind of fill the gap that is currently there in childbirth,” said Stevens, who noted that having a doula present has been clinically shown to reduce labor time, rate of Caesarean birth and allow partners to participate more actively in labor.

Stevens said there’s also a benefit for partners, and Alex Palmer experienced that first-hand when State College Doula was there when his wife, Ashley, gave birth to their daughter in April.

“My area of experience is being a husband, not necessarily a birth coach,” he said.

State College Doula also offers postpartum doula care, with the goal of alleviating stress when a new baby arrives home. Think meal planning, diaper changing, housekeeping, helping with sleep or sibling transitions.

“It’s kind of like having the best grandma ever who comes to encourage and support their style of parenting,” Stevens said.

Other services offered by the doulas include birth and newborn photography, placenta encapsulation, belly binding, childbirth education and Hypnobabies classes. While the services offered by State College Doula have grown in the past two years, so have its clients. Serving Johnstown to Williamsport and everything in between, Stevens said a name change and rebranding is ahead for the company — Doulas of Central Pennsylvania is coming soon.

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Jessica McAllister: 814-231-4617, @JMcAllisterCDT