What Is A Birth Doula and Why Might You Want One?

One of the questions I am most often asked is - what exactly is a doula? While they are growing in popularity in Ireland over the last few years there are still many people who are unsure as to what a doula actually does for a pregnant woman and how they can help.

Mary providing doula support to a Home Birth Mum (with 2 of the fabulous midwives from the  Cork Home Birth Scheme  - Mary and Fidelma) 

Mary providing doula support to a Home Birth Mum (with 2 of the fabulous midwives from the Cork Home Birth Scheme - Mary and Fidelma) 

The word ‘doula’ is a Greek one and has been interpreted as meaning ‘woman caregiver’. A doula is an experienced non-medical birth companion who provides continuous physical and emotional support to the Mum before, during and after her labour. Doulas usually have undertaken formal training with a doula organisation and are often mothers themselves.  Emotional support can mean the doula being a familiar face, and offering Mum reassurance and encouragement. Informational support can involve information gathering and explanation of procedures throughout pregnancy and during birth. While physical support can include comfort measures, massage, relaxation and positioning among other things. 

By providing continuous support through pregnancy, birth and beyond, doulas positively impact the childbearing experience for women and their families and reaffirm women's ability to give birth.

Why would a woman want a doula at their birth? Well the evidence show they improve birth experiences for women. The most recent research found that women having continuous support from a doula were less likely to have Syntocin (the oxytocin drip),  or have their labour end in a Caesarean Birth. Women who used a doula also felt significantly more positive about their birth experiences. Furthermore it was found that women were less likely to ask for an epidural if they had doula support. 

Often the woman’s birth partner will worry that if the couple hire a doula they will be left out. However, in my experience, doulas can be a fantastic resource for your birth partner as well. They can support and guide your partner offering them knowledge, information and tools to help you during your labour. Dads and same sex spouses are some of doulas biggest fans! Many women feel a strong need to have their partners present because of the strong emotional bond they share. Sometimes however, the partner can feel anxious or stressed by the responsibility they feel towards their loved one as they advance through labour. By having a doula present birth partners become more confident with all the information and reassurance provided, less overwhelmed and more effective in their ability to support the labouring mother. Having a doula there can also enable your partner to take a break - even just to go to the toilet or get some food.

One Dad wrote: 

I can’t emphasise what a massive support Mary was to us during the birth and she in no way stole my thunder. If anything Mary freed me up to enjoy the birth of our son and take on the role of supportive father. In addition, the fact that the birth was gruelling and long made Mary’s presence even more important.
— Joseph, First Time Dad

A doula can attend your birth in a hospital or home setting. Normally yourself and your partner will meet with your doula once or twice during your pregnancy to help you write up your birth plan, go over comfort techniques with you, or provide birth preparation  - depending on your individual needs. With these visits, couples can chat about what their ideal birth would be or any fears they may have. These visits are also a chance to talk about the benefits and risks of different options that can be offered to a couple during the birth. When labour begins, while a doula cannot speak up for the couple, they are able to remind them of the discussions during pregnancy so that the couples can make an informed decision on the day. 

We found the support of a doula very helpful. In our case, it was having a calming presence during the unplanned three day labour induction process. We believe having a doula helped me avoid a c-section by default (I was very close to just throwing in the towel and requesting one at times).
— Feedback on Birth Doula Support, Monica 2018

From 37 weeks on, your doula will be on-call for you, and when you go into labour is there to support you until your baby arrives. During this time the doula will be at the end of the phone day or night if needed. When labour begins the Mum usually calls the doula when she feels she needs that extra support - usually when labour is becoming more intense.  A doula will reassure the Mum and her partner, remind her how great she is doing, offer physical comfort measures to Mum to help her manage her labour, remind her to eat and drink, help her partner to support her - and a myriad of other supports. They will stay by your side until baby is born, and if you are breastfeeding will help support you with that first feed. 

If you are thinking of hiring a doula I would not hesitate, it will only create a more positive and empowering birth experience for you which in my opinion is priceless.
— Louisa, Cork

Often women think that since they are hoping for an epidural that they will not need a doula. However, a doula can be a great support with an epidural as well. They are there to keep Mum company if their partner needs to take a break, or if Mum is feeling anxious, they also have tools such as the peanut ball which can counter some of the downsides to having an epidural (evidence shows women who used a peanut ball with an epidural had significantly shorter births and fewer Caesareans).  

After your baby is born there are normally 1-2 postnatal visits offered by your doula in which your doula can chat to you about how the birth went, offer some support around breastfeeding and newborn baby behaviour, help you link in with other support groups that might be of help to you and see how you are doing mentally, emotionally and physically.  Some women choose to hire a post-partum doula to help them postnatally as well which we will talk about in a later blog post. 

As one of our DoulaCare Mums wrote: 

It is absolutely worth hiring a doula. You get more than just someone supporting you and your partner at the birth. And you have a team behind you. Whilst it might seem like a luxury to get a doula, the service really makes a significantly positive contribution to both the mother’s and partner’s birthing experience. It’s a decision that you won’t regret, and having had a doula, it is hard to imagine not using the service again. It goes beyond just the birthing experience.
— Second Time Mum, Dublin Feb 2018

You can read more experiences from Mum's over on our Birth Testimonials page