Pregnancy and birth can be daunting. There's so much to learn and so much to remember as you make it through nine months and beyond.
Sure, you have a doctor checking in on a regular basis and likely have a partner at your side. But some women choose to add one more person to the mix. They might hire a doula, who is trained to help coach a woman (and her family) through pregnancy, the birthing process and the early days of parenthood.
"Doula" comes from the ancient Greek for "female slave." It also means "female helper" or "maidservant." Throughout history, female friends and family members have traditionally helped a woman through pregnancy, birth and postpartum issues like breastfeeding.
Now, there are certification programs to teach women how to best support others through the process.
What a doula does
Doulas are not medical professionals. They don't deliver babies or provide any type of medical care. Instead, their function is to provide primarily emotional and physical support during pregnancy, says WebMD.
Doulas can perform various roles:
A labor or birth doula offers care during pregnancy and labor. During pregnancy, she will help develop a birth plan, answer questions about the birth process, and teach relaxation and breathing skills to be used during birth and delivery. During labor, she will help communicate a mom's preferences to medical professionals, will use massage and breathing to help the mom relax, and will comfort the mom and her partner.
An antepartum doula provides care for women who are put on bed rest to prevent preterm labor. She offers emotional support and help during what can be a frustrating time, and can also assist with housework and childcare.
A postpartum doula helps right after the baby comes home. She teaches the new mom (and dad) how to care for the baby, including breastfeeding support. The doula makes sure the new mom also gets enough care, including lots of rest and regular meals.
Doula vs. midwife
Unlike doulas, midwives are trained professionals who can perform medical care. There are different levels of training, but all can help healthy women during pregnancy, birth and delivery.
The most common type are certified nurse-midwives who are registered nurses who have additional training and accreditation in a nurse-midwifery program. As Healthline points out, midwives can do many things that doctors can do, including performing gynecological exams, administering pain medicine, giving an epidural and delivering a baby vaginally.
Benefits of doulas
A 1999 report in the Journal of Women's Health and Gender-Based Medicine analyzed the outcomes of a dozen trials that compared births that used doulas against those that did not. The results showed that the emotional and physical support from using a doula resulted in shorter labor and fewer complications, such as cesarean sections, use of forceps or need for pain medicine or Pitocin, a drug used to induce labor. Mothers who used doulas also rated childbirth as less difficult and less painful than women who didn't use them.
"The results of these 12 trials strongly suggest that doula support is an essential component of childbirth," the researchers concluded. "A thorough reorganization of current birth practices is in order to ensure that every woman has access to continuous emotional and physical support during labor."
When you are pregnant and in labor, your doctor's job is to support the baby and keep him or her safe. But a doula is focused only on mom.
"The biggest benefit of having a doula is that you have a woman trained and experienced with labor and birth ... whose sole job is to support you," Ami Burns, a childbirth educator and doula in Chicago and the founder of BirthTalk.com, tells Parents. "A doula doesn't also have to do anything medical or check on other patients like a doctor might. She is there for you and your needs."
As Parents' writer Dina Roth Port points out, the whole birth experience can be very surreal for your partner, so don't expect him to know how to be incredibly helpful without driving you bonkers. That's also when a doula can be helpful.
"The doula provides reassurance to the partner when everything is going smoothly, and helps facilitate communication between the mother and her partner when it's not," Burns says. "Doulas can also tag team with the partner to provide labor support to the mom so that the partner gets to rest when he needs to."