The word doula comes from a Greek word meaning “woman who serves”. Women have been serving or helping other women during childbirth for hundreds of years. Historically, these women filled one of two roles – the midwife who performed the medical tasks of delivering the baby, and the mother’s attendant who gave comfort and support to the woman in labor.
In modern terms, a doula is a woman who fills the role of the mother’s attendant. There are actually two general categories of doulas – a birth doula and a postpartum doula. Used by itself, the word doula typically refers to the birth doula who is sometimes called a labor support companion. Most birth doulas are trained professionals who may be certified by one of several organizations. The goal of the doula is to provide physical and emotional support to the mother during delivery. She can also be a valuable source of information and help in interpreting confusing medical terminology.
The role of a birth doula is flexible based on the needs and desires of the mother and her supporting family. Most doulas are available for phone calls or meetings prior to the day of delivery to get to know the mother and her birth-partner and to discuss the birth plan. During delivery, the doula’s focus is on the mother and her partner to provide emotional and physical support. The doula can help reduce pain using breathing techniques, giving massages, or helping the mother adjust to a better labor position. Studies have shown that women who have a doula with them at birth tend to need less pain medication and are less likely to delivery by cesarean section.
Having a doula present can reduce stress for the mother and her family. Because she is experienced in dealing with the physical and emotional needs of women in labor, the doula can help guide family members to take care of the mother while she is in labor.