The word “doula” comes from ancient Greece and means “a woman who serves,” so it's no surprise that most doulas are, in fact, women.
There are two kinds — birth doulas and postpartum doulas. A birth doula is an individual who has specialized training and experience in providing continuous physical and emotional support, as well as information, to the mother and her partner before, during, and immediately after birth. A postpartum doula provides emotional and practical support, as well as information, during the postpartum period.
While it sounds like these professionals might deliver babies, they don’t. For women in labor, they provide reassurance, comfort, and encouragement. They give physical (non-medical) support through touch, positioning, and comfort measures. They give emotional support, and assist mothers and their partners in communicating with medical professionals (e.g., nurses, doctors, midwives) responsible for deliveries.
Doulas practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, health care clinics, and doctors' offices. Most are in private practice. Interestingly, studies have shown that births attended by doulas tend to be shorter, have fewer complications, and involve fewer interventions (e.g., medications, forceps, vacuum extractions, cesarean sections). Research also shows that women have an easier transition to parenthood when they receive support during the postpartum period. Many postpartum doulas are also certified as lactation consultants (IBCLC) and provide breastfeeding support and assistance, as needed.
What should I consider when hiring a doula?
Most doula relationships begin with an initial interview or consultation to see whether the doula is a good fit for you and your birthing plan. DONA International is the leading professional organization for doulas and advises parents to consider these factors when hiring a doula:
- certification status
- prior experience in labor and delivery
- availability and flexibility around your baby's due date
- services offered (is your doula also a certified lactation consultant?)
- conversational compatibility
- general instincts about having the doula in your home or private space
Remember, some doulas only support women during their birth, while others only offer support after the baby arrives. Some doulas do both. Matching a doula with an expectant mother’s need will help to ensure a beneficial experience.