What is a Doula?
Doula (doo’-lah). A word that is not familiar to many, but a role that has existed throughout time and across cultures. In Greek, “doula” means “woman who serves,” and originally referred to female slaves. Later, the term was borrowed to describe any woman who supports another woman through childbirth (be it a sister, a mother, a friend). Today, doula refers to those who are trained to provide professional support to birthing persons and their families during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.
Modern doulas arose to fill a gap in the current maternity care model. Healthcare providers (such as obstetricians, midwives and nurses) have a very important job to do: to keep the mother and baby as safe as possible during labour and birth. This responsibility is huge and will always take priority over anything else. As such, there is often little or no time for healthcare providers to support the physical and emotional needs of the mother as she labours. In addition, doctors and nurses have many patients to attend to and will often change shifts several times throughout the course of a woman’s labour (leaving her and her chosen support people alone for much of that time). Doulas complement the clinical care team by providing non-clinical support that spans the continuity of the woman’s pregnancy, labour, birth and the postpartum period. Since the doula does not perform any clinical tasks, she is free to focus on the mother’s other needs as they arise and respond to them as they arise. This support may include things like:
- Providing prenatal education so that families are aware of their options and confident in their decisions;
- Being on call 24/7 to answer any questions that arise during pregnancy and labour immediately, without having to wait for the next prenatal appointment or checkup.
- Helping each family decide when to go to the hospital so that they arrive neither too early nor too late;
- Providing physical support and comfort measures to the labouring woman both at home and as she transitions to the hospital, and,
- Aiding the woman’s partner or other primary support person (if she has one) to help to their fullest capacity while also allowing for rest and breaks when needed.
- Serving as a source of information for anything that may arise during the labour and birth so that the birthing woman and her chosen support person(s) may make decisions with confidence
- Providing continuous care, even during hospital shift changes, so that there is always a familiar face in the room
Can’t My Partner (or mom or sister or friend…) be my doula?
Of course! We know how important is to have your loved ones near you during this vulnerable time. Sometimes, though, it is helpful to have a trained support person as an addition to your team. If you have a partner, loved one or friend who you would like to attend your birth, a doula does not have to replace that person. Instead, your doula can help your support people work to their fullest capacity while still taking breaks when needed. Labours often go long and partners need to eat and use the bathroom at times (often when you don’t want them to leave your side). Having a doula allows you to feel confident that you will have support when you need it most.
In addition, a good doula is well versed in what to expect during the course of labour (something which most partners are not). Your doula has seen many labours unfold and has a wealth of information, from tips and tricks for easing labour contractions to how to navigate the hospital system. They can help you to navigate when you (and your partner) feel lost.
There are additional benefits to having a doula, though. Continuous labour support is correlated with:
- DECREASED use of artificial hormones (such as Pitocin) to augment labour*.
- DECREASED risk of C-section*
- DECREASED need for pain-medication during labour
- DECREASED risk of newborn being admitted to special-care nursery
- DECREASED risk of being dissatisfied with your birth experience*
- INCREASED Likelihood of having a spontaneous, vaginal birth*
- INCREASED likelihood of being satisfied with your birth experience
Hodnett ED1, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, Sakala C. (Rev. 2012 Oct 17) Continuous support for women during childbirth. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews;10:CD003766. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub4.
*Benefits GREATER with a doula than with any other type of continuous support (partner, medical staff, family member, friend).