The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves.” Today, the doula definition refers to a trained professional who provides emotional, physical, and informational support to pregnant clients before, during, and after childbirth. They help support the mother to make the childbirth experience as healthy and comfortable as possible.
A doula can be a helpful addition to your OB/GYN team, but it’s important to understand what a doula can — and can’t — do to enhance your birthing experience.
What Doulas Do: Understanding a Doula’s Role
Unlike doctors and certified nurse-midwives who must have advanced medical training, doulas are not required to receive medical training, nor do they perform medical tasks. Doulas do not perform clinical exams or deliver babies — but they can be very helpful to the mother while she is delivering.
For example, the doula cannot administer pain medication, but she can apply pain management techniques — such as counterpressure, massage, and warm blankets — that may allow the mother to labor without or with less medication. Or she may recommend a different birthing position to help move the labor along or make the mother more comfortable.
The doula may also serve as the birth couple’s advocate in the birthing suite—controlling who they want to allow into the room and offering encouragement, reassurance, and physical and emotional support throughout the delivery.
Doulas also can provide support for other reproductive experiences, such as miscarriages, stillbirths, or abortions.
Typically, birth doulas need about 10 to 12 hours of childbirth education and 16 hours of birth doula training, and must attend at least two to five births. Birth doulas can assist in the birthing process at home births, in hospital settings, or at birthing centers.
Postpartum doulas usually need about 27 hours of postpartum doula education and must assist two or more women with postpartum support. Postpartum doulas have all of the necessary clearances and training to provide infant care and lactation support. Most doulas are certified and have passed exams.
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The Difference Between Doulas and Midwives
While both midwives and doulas assist in the birthing process, there is one big difference between them:
- Midwives are trained to provide medical care for mothers during pregnancy, birth, and the immediate postpartum period.
- Doulas provide non-medical comfort and support for mothers and families during that same timeframe.
Because their skills complement each other, midwives and doulas work well together in the birthing suite, and it is not unusual for clients to use the services of both professions.
How a Doula Can Help
There are many benefits to using a doula, but one of the biggest is having a trusted person looking out for your welfare throughout an emotionally and physically intense experience. Here are some other ways a doula can help:
- Before the baby is born — Pregnancy brings many questions, especially when it’s your first baby. You might call your doula for advice and to answer questions during your pregnancy. Your doula can tell you what issues are normal and counsel you on when to contact your midwife or doctor. Doulas are especially helpful if you are put on bed rest to prevent preterm labor.
- During labor — Your doula can help suggest positions to help move your labor along or make you more comfortable. She can give your partner a break from childbirth coaching and be a welcome and constant source of guidance and support between medical team visits during a long labor.
- After the birth — The postpartum period is a time of many adjustments for you, your family, and your new baby. The doula can help you with:
- Feeding support
- Breastfeeding support
- Meal prep
- Household tasks
- Newborn care
- Sleep and self-care
Benefits of Doulas for Pregnancy and Childbirth
Research has found that doulas have a positive effect on the birth experience over and above just making it more comfortable for the mother. Studies have shown that mothers who use birth doula services:
- Have fewer medical interventions.
- Have lower incidence of C-sections and forceps deliveries.
- Require less pain medication.
- Request fewer epidurals.
- Try breastfeeding more readily.
- Feel a higher degree of satisfaction with their birth experience.
Mothers who used postpartum doulas were more likely to:
- Attend their well-baby appointments.
- Have longer breastfeeding durations.
- Bond better with their babies.
- Have lower rates of postpartum depression.
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For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long renowned for its services to women and babies, but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and the hospital’s NICU is one of the largest in the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.