We all need somebody to lean on — especially when giving birth. It may not be enough for some mothers to rely on doctors, nurses or partners to get through the painful labor process. Sometimes, a different kind of helping hand is needed.
That’s where the doula comes in. Not to be confused with the midwife, the doula is a trained professional who provides physical and emotional support to women during pregnancy, labor and early postpartum.
What Does a Birth Doula Do?
Where midwives tend to assist more physically with the actual process of labor, doulas provide emotional and educational support throughout the whole processes of pregnancy, labor and after. They are there to offer information and education to mothers and their partners and offer guidance.
“We help Mom and her partner to be as prepared as possible for their baby’s birthday throughout pregnancy,” said Cara Mehlon, a doula from Carmel, Indiana. “During labor we help her feel as comfortable as possible using relaxation techniques, comfort measures and position changes to help labor progress comfortably and safely. Once baby is born we are able to help with breastfeeding as soon as baby is ready to nurse. During the postpartum period a doula comes to the home to check in on the family, discuss how the birth went and support the family with newborn care information including local resources.”
Are Doulas Licensed?
There is no required license to become a doula, but many, like Mehlon, are trained through the Doulas of North America (DONA). With this training, doulas use massage therapy, homeopathic remedies and other tools to keep mothers calm and reassured during the birth process.
Why Hire a Doula?
There are many reasons women choose to use doulas and many things to look for when considering bringing one into your life for your birthing experience.
“Some women may need someone who is more nurturing and others may need someone who will be more straight and to the point during labor,” Mehlon said. “Both are fabulous choices. As a massage therapist, I find many women love receiving massage during labor and then others don’t want to be touched at all. Having a doula that meets with you prior to your birth to get to know your needs and desires for birth is very helpful for everyone involved on your special day.”
For Caitlin Balgeman, the potential for “the unexpected” is what made her want to hire a doula.
“I wanted to have support through my labor, with the goal of having an unmedicated labor but understanding that things don't always go according to our plans,” Balgeman said. “If the unexpected happened, I wanted someone who knew my wishes and could help advocate for me, as well as helping my husband and I navigate any decisions we might have to make.”
Balgeman also recalled feeling comforted by the presence of Mehlon throughout the span of pregnancy and labor — a presence that most new mothers come to realize is needed if it is their first baby, or if their partner is “squeamish.”
“I think the first word that comes to mind when I think of having a doula is ‘presence,’” Balgeman said. “Cara was such a calming and constant presence throughout my hospital labor, even though I wasn't always consciously aware of all the work she was doing in the moment! I liked being able to talk through labor and different possibilities with her beforehand, and practice different labor positions with my husband and her. I was able to text her when I had questions, and I was able to call her while I was laboring at home so she could help me gauge how I was progressing and when it was time for us to head to the hospital. It was great to have multiple support people so that I didn't have to rely on only one person the whole time — it allowed my incredibly loving and also somewhat squeamish husband the chance to have a break, and to have someone he could rely on to know what was happening.”
Though research shows a very small percentage of mothers use doulas to help with their pregnancy — less than 10%, in fact — it also shows that those who do choose to hire a doula are less likely to have pre-term births. A study also found that hiring a doula can lower a woman’s chance of having a caesarean by up to 28%.
The cost of hiring a doula can vary. Only two states currently allow mothers access to hiring doulas through Medicaid — Minnesota and Oregon. The cost of hiring a doula ranges from $800 to $2,000.
Knowing if a doula is right for you and your baby can be tough. Balgeman claimed that she could think of nothing she didn’t like about Mehlon’s guidance in bringing her newborn into the world.
“Every labor is different and ultimately unpredictable,” Balgeman said, “but doulas are there to help you navigate whatever comes your way. Go ahead and ask any potential doula of yours lots of questions — they can handle it! They want you to feel totally comfortable and safe with them, and communicating any questions, worries, and thoughts is all part of that process.”
Learn More about Doulas
To find out more information or to find a doula in Seattle, visit dona.org.