What is a Doula?

The word doula comes from Greek, and refers to a woman who personally serves another woman. In Greece, the word has some negative connotations, denoting “slave”, as some doulas have inadvertently discovered through their international social networks. For this reason, some women performing professional labor support choose to call themselves labor assistants. Anthropologist Dana Raphael first used the term doula to refer to experienced mothers who assisted new mothers in breastfeeding and newborn care in the Philippines. Medical researchers Marshall Klaus and John Kennell, who conducted the first of several randomized clinical trials on the medical outcomes of doula attended births, adopted the term to refer to labor support as well as prenatal and postpartum support.

Types of doulas

Labor/birth support doulas are trained and experienced labor support persons who attend to the emotional and physical comfort needs of laboring women to smooth the labor process. They do not perform clinical tasks such as heart rate checks, or vaginal exams but rather use massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, positioning suggestions, etc., to help labor progress as well as possible. A labor/birth support doula joins a laboring woman either at her home or in hospital or birth center and remains with her until after the birth. Some doulas also offer prenatal visits, phone support, and one postpartum meeting to ensure the mother is well informed and supported. The terms of a labor/birth doula’s responsibilities are decided between the doula and the family. In addition to emotional, physical and informational support, doulas work as advocates of their client’s wishes and may assist in communicating with medical staff to obtain information for the client to make informed decisions regarding medical procedures.

Postpartum doulas are hired to support the woman after birth, usually in the family’s home. They are trained to offer families evidence-based information and support on infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from childbirth, infant soothing and coping skills for new parents. They may also help with light housework, fix a meal and help incorporate an older child into this new experience. The terms of a postpartum doula’s responsibilities are decided between the doula and the family.

The doula is not meant to sideline or replace the partner/father. The father or partner may be able to provide continuous support, but typically has little actual experience in dealing with labor process. Even more important, many fathers experience the birth as an emotional journey of their own and find it hard to be objective in such a situation. Studies have shown that fathers usually participate more actively during labor with the presence of a doula than without one. A responsible doula supports and encourages the father in his support style rather than replaces him.

Learn more!

Learn more about doulas on the Doulas of North America website »