When I tell someone I’m a birth doula, the number one question that follows is…what’s that? Thankfully, I’m delighted to answer this question! I believe the more people who are informed about doulas, the better birth outcomes will be. Numerous studies have found that a doulas presence tends to result in shorter labors with fewer complications, more positive feelings about one’s birthing experience, and a significant reduction in the number of interventions used during labor and childbirth. So what is a birth doula anyways? I’m glad you asked!
The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves” and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after birth.
Although doulas are just starting to gain popularity in the United States, the concept certainly isn’t a new one. In almost every culture throughout history, women have been supporting and caring for women during childbirth. Artistic representations of birth throughout the world usually include at least two other women surrounding and supporting the birthing mother. One of these women is the midwife, who is responsible for the safe passage of the mother and baby; the other woman or women are behind or beside the mother, holding and comforting her. The modern day birth doula is a manifestation of the woman beside the mother.
When it comes to the birthing team, each person involved in the care of the laboring woman contributes to her emotional wellbeing. However, doctors, nurses and midwives are primarily responsible for the health and wellbeing of the mother and baby. Medical care providers must assess the condition of the mother and baby, diagnose and treat complications as they arise, and focus on a safe delivery of the baby. These priorities rightly take precedence over the nonmedical emotional needs of laboring women. A doula helps ensure that these nonmedical needs are met while enhancing communication and understanding between the woman or couple and the staff.
Doulas also offer help and advice on a variety of comfort measures such as breathing, relaxation, movement, position, massage, and more. They keep the woman and her partner informed about the course of their labor and the various options available, allowing them to make well informed decisions about the birth of their baby. Another crucial role of the doula is providing continuous emotional reassurance and comfort for the duration of the labor, and moments immediately following the birth. Some doulas are also trained in lactation, and are able to help initiate breastfeeding as soon as the baby is born.
Doulas do not interfere with or replace the woman’s partner or support person, but instead work with him or her to create a strong and supportive team. Doulas also do not replace nurses or other medical staff, nor do they perform medical tasks such as taking blood pressure or temperature, monitoring fetal heart rate, doing vaginal exams, or providing postpartum clinical care. Most importantly, doulas do not make decisions for their clients, and never project their own values and goals onto the laboring woman.
In short, women have been supporting women during childbirth since the beginning of time, and today we call those women doulas. Research now supports what women have known for centuries- a doula’s continuous, knowledgeable, and reassuring presence can make a dramatic difference on how confident and comfortable a woman feels before, during, and after the birth of her baby.