A study published this month in the journal Birth compared two groups of pregnant women: 1,935 moms-to-be in Minnesota who used state doula services and 67,147 women in the northern and midwestern U.S. who did not. (The medical expenses of both groups were covered by Medicaid). Researchers found that women with doula care had 22% lower odds of giving birth prematurely, and were less likely to have a c-section. (Among the women with doulas, 20.4% gave birth via cesarean, compared to 34.2% of women without doulas.)
If you’ve never heard of a doula before, they are certified professionals who offer emotional and physical support through pregnancy and labor, either in a hospital setting or at home. (The term doula comes from the Greek word for “a woman who serves,” according to the training association DONA International). We spoke with Jada Shapiro, who founded the referral service Birth Day Presence in New York City, for insight on the various ways doulas can help moms-to-be. Here, four reasons why expectant parents might want to hire one.
Although every doula has a unique approach, their main role is to care for the mom-to-be. “Doulas offer continuous support to women both during pregnancy and after childbirth,” Shapiro explains. “In a way, we are trying to recreate what was typical in old-world communities when women were surrounded by a vast support system of female friends and relatives during pregnancy.”
And while doulas are not medical professionals, they possess a wealth of knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth that can be extremely helpful for expectant moms. “We work closely with our clients to de-mystify pregnancy terminology and help women interpret their options,” says Shapiro. That said, one of the most common misconceptions about doulas is that they interfere with a woman’s obstetrician. Shapiro says it’s important to note that this is not the case. “Doulas complement the care a woman receives from her doctor,” she says. “We don’t get in the way of medical decisions.”
She also adds that while many people believe you can only work with a doula if you want a medicine-free birth, this is also untrue: Women with all kinds of birth plans can find it helpful to consult a doula during their pregnancy.
“Doulas are well-trained in physical comfort and can offer a wide range of pain relief techniques and tools,” says Shapiro, including acupressure, hydrotherapy, birthing balls, massage, and suggesting position changes during labor. Doulas can also help moms relax with soothing imagery, music, and breathing exercises.
This individualized level of care can help moms feel a little calmer during one of the most physically and emotionally challenging days of their lives. “I believe that many mothers just feel generally more cared for and less alone during the experience of childbirth with the help of a doula,” Shapiro says.
“Something I hear from many of my clients is that they can’t believe how intimate their childbirth experience was, even with a doula there,” says Shapiro.
She adds that because childbirth can be such an overwhelming experience for families, having the support of a third party can be just as useful for partners as it is for moms-to-be: “Doulas can help recall important information from midwife or doctor appointments, lend a helping hand if mom needs a massage, or just generally absorb some of the stress from the partner,” she says. “In this way, a doula can allow partners to be fully present in the experience.”
Doulas are a resource for moms-to-be throughout their pregnancy, but most importantly, they’ll be there when you’re in labor. “Doulas are typically on-call 24/7 during a client’s ‘due window’ of 36 to 42 weeks,” says Shapiro. When a woman goes into labor, her doula will be available for physical and emotional support both while she’s laboring at home as well as accompanying her to the hospital.
And in addition to the aforementioned relaxation and pain relief techniques, doulas know a lot about childbirth (Shapiro, for example, has attended “more than 350” births in her 13 years as a professional doula). “During labor, doulas might suggest alternate positions; encourage different non-medical techniques to potentially help speed up dilation, such as walking around; and just generally act as a sounding board for difficult medical decisions,” she says.
By Kathleen Mulpeter