A doula is an individual who offers one-on-one support for a woman in labor as well as her partner and family. The word "doula" comes from a Greek word meaning "woman's servant". With regard to labor and birth, doulas provide continuous, uninterrupted care for the laboring woman and her partner, helping them participate fully in their experience by offering physical and emotional support and information about the birth process and their available options. Doulas also support pregnant women through portions of the prenatal and postpartum period.
Birth doulas are trained to understand the normal process of labor and birth. A doula provides emotional support by encouraging a woman during labor, re-assuring her as she moves through the stages of labor, especially when labor becomes challenging. A doula helps a woman cope with her pain by helping with relaxation and breathing techniques, and offering suggestions for positions to make labor easier. A doula can offer comfort touch in the form of back rubs, foot massages or a cool washcloth.
A doula can help create a more relaxing environment for a woman to labor in, such as dimming lights, turning on soft music, and helping keep a room quiet.
Postpartum doulas are trained to assist in the period following the birth. Doulas provide education, non-judgmental support and companionship, and help facilitate the transition to parenthood by supplying evidence-based information. Doulas also provide hands on support with newborn care and feeding, meal preparation, household tasks, and care for older siblings.
A doula provides the opportunity for the mother to rest and take care of herself.
The one-on-one continuous support from a doula is different from the care provided by a doctor, nurse, or midwife. Doulas offer non-clinical support and care during pregnancy, labor, birth and postpartum. Doulas do not assess fetal heart tones, do physical exams, check blood pressure or any other vital sign of mother or baby. If medical interventions become necessary, a doula can help a woman get the information she needs to make informed choices for her birth. A doula can help facilitate communication between the mother and her caregiver. A doula does not make decisions for clients or intervene in their clinical care. She provides informational and emotional support, while respecting a woman’s decisions.
The doula’s goal is to help the woman have a satisfying childbirth as the woman defines it. When a doula is present, some women feel less need for pain medications, or may postpone them until later in labor; however, many women choose or need pharmacological pain relief. It is not the role of the doula to discourage the mother from her choices. The doula helps her become informed about various options, including the risks, benefits and accompanying precautions or interventions for safety. Doulas can help maximize the benefits of pain medications while minimizing their undesirable side effects. The comfort and reassurance offered by the doula are beneficial regardless of the use of pain medications.
Information compiled from Mothering the Mother, by MH Klaus, JH Kennell, and PH Klaus; Addision Wesley Publishing Company, 1993