If this is your first pregnancy — or simply the first time you’ve seen the word “doula” — you probably have plenty of questions. What is a doula? What do doulas do? Is a doula the same as a birth coach?
Let’s start with the easiest answers. A doula may also be known as a birth coach, labor companion, labor support specialist, birth assistant, or labor assistant. But by any name, the duties and dedication to providing emotional, physical, and other types of support to pregnant people are the same.
Another common question is whether a doula is the same as a midwife. The answer is “no.” Midwives have advanced medical training and certification that allow them to provide certain types of medical care. Doulas are not medically trained. Instead, their training is focused on how to coach and support pregnant people to help them have a safer, healthier, and happier birth experience.
A Brief History
If you spoke ancient Greek, you would already know that the word doula means “a woman who serves.” This accurately reflects centuries of tradition when women routinely gave birth at home. Even if home was a cave. In those days, an experienced midwife or healer often attended the baby’s birth, while female family members, friends, and neighbors provided comfort and support.
Early in the 20th century, women began to have their babies in hospitals where anesthesia was available to help manage pain. As the number of home births decreased, female friends and family members gradually lost the knowledge, experience, and confidence needed to provide traditional birth support.
But the need for that consistent, caring birth support didn’t go away. And that led to the rise of the professional doula in the 1970s and ’80s.
What Doulas Do
In general terms, the modern doula is a professional who has been trained and certified to provide emotional, educational, and physical support during pregnancy, labor, birth, and beyond. Doulas work closely with pregnant people and their families at home, as well as in a hospital or birth center.
There are 2 basic specialties: birth doulas and postpartum doulas. A birth doula works with you during your pregnancy and stays with you during labor and childbirth. A postpartum doula works with you and your family during the first 6 weeks after your baby is born. You can also find full-service doulas offering both specialties so you can have the same person by your side for as long as you need them.
One thing a doula doesn’t do is replace or get between you and your partner in any way. A good doula will use their knowledge and experience to make both you and your partner feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible, no matter what is happening in the room at the moment. Similarly, a doula works in concert with your health care provider and other members of the birth team, supporting and advocating for you and your birth plan.
How Doulas Can Help
A doula’s job is to consistently provide personal comfort, encouragement, and support that will be different from what you’ll receive from your health care provider and their team. Your provider will periodically come in to check on you. Your nurses will be in and out until they change shifts. But your doula will stay with you unless you ask them to leave. Here’s a quick look at how a doula can help:
- Comforting you with guided touching or massage
- Helping you find the most comfortable positions
- Moving you around to keep labor going
- Breathing with you to help you manage pain
- Keeping it calm with lights, music, and aromatherapy
- Assisting with water therapy in the shower or tub
- Giving you ice chips, snacks, or drinks
- Staying focused on you and your labor progression
- Giving you reassurance, encouragement, and praise
- Helping you see your current experience more positively
- Keeping you company, talking, and playing games with you
- Showing a caring attitude toward you and your partner
- Helping you and your partner work through any doubts or fears
- Explaining what is happening at each stage of labor
- Suggesting breathing and relaxation techniques, movement, and positioning
- Helping you find evidence-based information about pregnancy and birth options
- Explaining basic medical procedures before or as they happen
- Helping your partner understand what’s going on with you
- Keeping your family informed about any changes or progress
Should You Hire a Doula?
Just like every pregnancy is different, so are the wants and needs of every patient. If you think you might want a steady source of support and coaching during labor or there is a possibility that your partner may not be able to be there for the birth, hiring a doula might be a good option. But if you are someone who doesn’t think you’ll need another person cheering you on every step of the way, you probably don’t want a doula.
If you’re interested in learning more about doulas or possibly hiring one, ask your health care provider, childbirth instructor, friends, or family for recommendations. Some hospitals also offer information or a referral to individual doulas or organizations in your area.
When you interview potential doulas, ask about their experience and training, certification, childbirth philosophy, available services, references, and, of course, how much they charge. You’ll also want to share your own preferences and any concerns you might have about your pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
In the end, a doula needs to be someone you can trust and feel comfortable with — through good times and really awful ones. The truth is that pregnancy, labor, and birth can be a big challenge for anyone. And there’s no such thing as having too much comfort, understanding, and support when you’re the one having the baby!