I am often asked what a doula does and how she can help a mom through her labour. I am going to cheat here a bit and post a short essay that I wrote a long while ago for the certification process. There are not a ton of details but you get a better sense of the general idea. The role a a doula is always dependent on the needs of a labouring mother, and as such, changes not only with every client but also through each labour. We are great adapters and fill the role/s that are needed when they are needed and do our very best to help the mother and her partner have positive, empowered birth experience. My apologizes for the lameness of the essay.
The Purpose and Value of Labour Support
Women have been caring for each other through labour and birth since the beginning of our existence, and childbearing and childrearing was once a community effort. Families were large and tightly knit. When a daughter became pregnant, her mother, and possibly grandmother, all of her sisters and aunts would be by her side throughout her pregnancy, labour, birth and motherhood. She was never alone in this journey and could rely on the wisdom of her elders and the support of her female community for advice, emotional care and physical encouragement. Somewhere along the way our society has lost these values, and pregnancy, birth and childrearing have become isolated and unsupported. Birth is no longer an event for the entire family or female community and all responsibilities of birth and labour have fallen to the mother and her partner. Mainstream media has turned birth into something unnatural and frightening, instead of the empowering, fulfilling, natural triumph it is. Western society, and the medical community in particular, continually perpetuate messages of fear and doubt, leading the majority of women to believe that they are unable to birth their babies naturally. This has had grave implications on our communities and for the mothers of this world, driving childbirth even further from a place of joy and love in the process.
The Doula, meaning “woman caregiver,” works to bring birth back to where it belongs: in the hands of an informed laboring woman. A doula is the support system for a woman and her family through pregnancy, childbirth and the early postpartum period. She helps to empower the childbearing woman by providing her with information and support in the form of continuous emotional care and physical comfort techniques. A doula is not part of the medical staff and, therefore, uses only non-medical methods to comfort and care for her client, such as breathing techniques, massage, physical support and reassuring touch and encouragement (1). With her knowledge, training and skills in the birthing process, a doula can help a mother birth more comfortably and quickly by suggesting position changes that allows her body to create more room for baby to find their way Earth-side. Positioning and other techniques learned by doulas may also be used to move a mal positioned baby allowing the birthing process to continue more rapidly with less discomfort for the mother.
The doula not only cares directly for her client but also does so indirectly by supporting her partner though the birthing process. She helps the partner enjoy their experience by allowing them to take on whatever role they feel most comfortable in. For example, when the doula plays a more physically active role in supporting the mother, her partner is able to provide the loving encouragement and emotional support essential to the birthing process, or vice-versa. A doula is able to make suggestions for ways the partner can effectively support their loved one when they are unsure of how to help (1). The doula also ensures the partner is rested and has time to eat and care for their own needs so they are better able to care for mom and baby once born.
The doula’s calming reassurance allows both parents to understand that what happens during labour and birth is normal and natural, which helps to maintain a relaxing, positive birthing environment. A doula also advocates for her clients wishes by encouraging and enhancing communication between the family and birthing staff, but she does this without speaking on behalf of or making decisions for the laboring mother and without projecting her own values and desires (1,2). A doula helps the mother and her partner make informed decisions for herself and her new baby by providing information about their options and associated benefits and risks or by suggesting questions to ask their care provider (2). Through all of these means, the doula assists the mother in having a safe, empowering and fulfilling birth experience.
The benefits of a doula’s continuous labour support have been well established. In the most recent 2011 review of labour support studies, Hodnett et al concluded that women with continuous, one-on-one support were more likely to birth vaginally with fewer complications and medical interventions such as cesarean sections and the use of forceps, vacuum extraction, and synthetic oxytocin (3). Doula supported labours also tended to be shorter in length and the mother’s request for pain medication and/or epidurals were significantly decreased. Negative feelings about one’s birthing experience were also reduced with the presence of a doula. The babies born to women with supported births also tended to have better five-minute Apgar scores and increased success with breastfeeding (3). Spouses also feel more supported by a doula and in turn provide more support to their labouring partner (3). Although continuous support in general improves a mother’s birth experience, the 2011 review found that doula-supported labours had the greatest results and most impact for a mother, partner and baby when compared to labours that were supported by friends, family or hospital staff (3).
The role and benefits of a doula extend far beyond those of the labouring mother. Doulas carry the potential to positively influence society as a whole. The care doulas provide to women during pregnancy, labour, birth and early postpartum is paramount to strengthening the early emotional relationship between mother and baby, which in turn will prove to be positive for the future of the family, and on a large scale, society in general. These mothers gain greater confidence and self-esteem, which helps them to adapt to their new family life and decreases the likelihood of developing postpartum depression (1). Research has also shown that women who have doula-supported labours have an increased sense of satisfaction with their partner and display greater affection and bonding with their baby, all of which are likely to enhance the long-term family bond (5). The decrease in medical intervention during labour and birth, often attributed to the presence of a doula, allows for a decrease in medical expenditure, allowing medical finances to be allocated more efficiently (5).
Because the role of a doula has such vast impact, her responsibilities are extremely important. A doula carries great ethical responsibilities to her clients, colleagues, society, and to the doula profession itself (4). She continually strives to improve her knowledge of the birthing world, uphold the values and mission of the profession and promote maternal and child welfare.
1. The DONA International Position Paper
2. DONA International Birth Doula Standards of Practice
3. Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, Sakala C, Weston J. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD003766. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub3.
4. DONA International Birth Doula Code of Ethics
5. Klause MH, Kennell JH, Klaus PH. The Doula Book. Second Ed, Da Capr Press, 2002.