MaMa Conference – Ten Highlights

I’m back home, sitting in my kitchen in London, reflecting on two extraordinary days.  A bit longer if you count the night coach travels to and from Scotland, which were an adventure in themselves!  So, before life returns to some semblance of normality, my kids come home from their bank holiday weekend excitements and I turn my attention to the ever-growing to-do list I want to remind myself of some of the things I have heard/learnt this weekend. Because conferences are an ideal time to recharge the birth battery and get an oxytocin hit!

I Love MaMa! With Elizabeth Bain at MaMa 2017
I Love MaMa! With Elizabeth Bain at MaMa 2017

Highlight One

Picking one highlight of Hannah Dahlen’s talk is tricky – she is feisty, forthright and brave, so brave!  What she is facing in Australia is horrible.  However, she talks so much sense and reminds me how crucial humility is, asking questions like “do we facilitate or inhibit birth with the care we give?”  In talking about place of birth, a subject close to my heart, she reminds us that the arguments are almost never really about place, but about power and positioning.  Women are seeking more than place when they choose homebirth – they are in their familiar place, where the midwife is invited in.  The highlight though, is Hannah’s comment,

“Declare war on the bed!”

If beds were removed entirely, or at the very least relegated to a corner, women could be far better supported to be upright and leaning forward – something she observed in 100% of women at home.

Highlight Two

Hearing Shereen Fisher talking about the Breastfeeding Network (who later won Charity of the Year!) and the work of Peer Supporters, of which I am proud to be one!  Amazing the number of times during the course of the conference the mythical £350 million pounds the Brexiteers promised us during the Referendum was mentioned and how it would be invaluable in providing more breastfeeding support.  The comments from mothers who had called the National Breastfeeding Helpline, or got peer support, were so positive and it is so simple.  There just needs to be more funding!!!

Highlight Three

Meeting new people!  Those who know me well are often surprised when I tell them that I am quite shy.  They know the noisy, irreverent, chatty me, but put me in a venue full of strangers and I often retreat a bit – the quieter, more introspective side, the doula in the birth room, often comes out.  Having the opportunity to sit at a table for lunch with new people was fantastic – a chance to meet a smaller number of people at a time – and different people, doing different things with their lives.  Hearing Heather McCosker-Howard’s tales of working as a nomadic midwife and Laura Godfrey-Isaac’s of moving from the creative world into midwifery were so interesting, and I really relished Laura’s presentation the following day of birth in the media, something I have written about before and believe has such a significant impact on growing children that by the time they come to have their own babies they are suffused with fear and dramatic expectations.

Highlight Four

Seeing the subject of self-care on the programme!  I hope, like Tracy Donegan, that I can empower more doulas to consider how they care for themselves when they choose to do this work.  I see burnout across the whole birth profession and am so interested to consider the difference between compassion and empathy.

Highlight Five

Obstetricians!!!  Not one, but two Obstetricians talking at the conference.  I was really keen to hear Andy Simm talking about his experiences of performing caesareans, and particularly the terminology – is it a gentle caesarean, or does that imply that all others are barbaric?  Is it natural given that it is still major abdominal surgery?  Is it woman or family-centred?   Like the work of Jenny Smith and her colleagues at Queen Charlottes Hospital in the past few years, Andy seems to think it is the way forward – why would you not attempt to make the experience as positive as possible for the mother in question?  Why would you not do as many of those evidence-based practices as you can e.g. deferred cord clamping and immediate skin-to-skin contact?  Andy reckons that the biggest obstacle to this type of caesarean is the reluctance of staff to give up rituals.  Step out of the familiar zone I say – let’s see women and their babies at the centre of this practice – more of our doula clients are requesting these types of operation and are reporting so much more satisfaction when they have them.  I look forward to more conversations on the subject!

Highlight Six

This one might stay with me longer than many of the others.  Dancing the Gay Gordons with Paul Byrom!  I didn’t have a clue what I was doing most of the time, there were a lot of us on the dancefloor and he was very generous taking a perfect stranger as his partner!  How we didn’t crash in to others I don’t know, but I am grateful for the laughter and the oxytocin release that came from dancing, something that Ina May talked about the following day!

Highlight Seven

Hearing Sheena Byrom, who seemed to be able to shrug off the revelries of the night before with considerably more ease than me, talking about creating birth spaces.  I have loved hearing Sheena talk before and she didn’t disappoint.  I loved that this time we were asked to consider the birth environment on labour wards, not just on midwifery units and birth centres.  Why should the low-risk mother who chooses the birth centre be the only one who gets warm, inviting colours, dim lighting, beanbags, soothing images?  I fully intend to do a photographic journey of the labouring mum next time I go to one of my local hospitals.  Let’s see what can be done to make changes.  It doesn’t need to be expensive.  I love that one of the Consultant Anaesthetists at my local hospital is campaigning to improve women’s experience of theatre, and to date has had some lovely stickers approved for the ceiling of the operating theatre, giving women a much more pleasant image to look at during surgery.  These may seem like small, unexceptional changes, but from feedback of local mothers I know they make a big difference.

Highlight Eight

The moments of absolute silence in the room when an idea hit home.  It was really noticeable during Suzanne Zeedyk’s talk on connection.  I loved it and want to know more.  Her research on babies, attachment, connection, bonding is so interesting.   The videos she showed of babies as young as 8 weeks old responding to themselves and others shows that our babies are born connected and need ongoing connection.  Our use of mobile phones, car seats and buggies is so worrying and has such an impact on our growing babies’ brains.  I need to reflect on how best to pass on this information to the women and families I work with.

Highlight Nine

Ina May Gaskin’s story telling.  I don’t really need to say more. Nothing helps me to learn better than hearing stories and it is something I utilise a lot when teaching doulas.  In addition Ina May told me that she regards chocolate as a separate food group, essential for every day, and I love that – permission to eat chocolate!!

Fantastic creative cakes at MaMa does Great British Bake Off!
Fantastic creative cakes at MaMa does Great British Bake Off!

Highlight Ten

The hug I got from Cassie, the founder and organiser of BirthSparks and MaMa, at the end of the conference!  In her position I think I would have been on my knees with exhaustion, but she gave the warmest, loveliest hug I have had in a while and I am so grateful to her, and her team, for being so inviting and friendly.  I remember Tanya coming up to me at the end of lunch on the second day and saying “I invite you to return to the conference for the afternoon” – it was such a nurturing way of calling us back in and I appreciated it hugely.

Highlight Eleven

I know I said there were ten highlights, but I lied!  Being awarded Doula of the Year was the ultimate accolade.  I feel so honoured that so many former clients, doula trainees and colleagues nominated me.  I love what I do and feel privileged on a daily basis that there is so much variety in what I do.  I love that doulas have been made to feel welcome at MaMa, and look forward to lots more collaboration between midwives, obstetricians, health professionals and doulas.  At Nurturing Birth we are always happy to chat to anyone who wants to know more.  Our door is open!

Sophie Brigstocke is one of the Directors and Course Facilitators at Nurturing Birth, providing Doula Preparation Courses, Mentoring and the Nurturing Birth Directory for women and families to find support in pregnancy, birth, the early postnatal period and infant feeding. Find out more about Nurturing Birth at: