Considering a Labor Doula? What You Need to Know

What is a labor doula?
Also called a childbirth or labor assistant, a labor doula is a trained woman who will stay with you throughout labor and birth. Dana Raphael first popularized the word "doula," a Greek word meaning "woman caregiver," in her 1973 book The Tender Gift (9). She used it to describe women who provided help and support to women after childbirth. However, the researchers who first studied the effects of female labor-support companions used the same term. Today, women who offer postpartum home-care services and women who do labor support both call themselves doulas, and some women do both.

A labor doula "mothers the mother," that is, she does anything and everything a loving mother who is knowledgeable about childbirth would do (4). She encourages and comforts you, gives you information about what is happening to you, facilitates communication between you and medical staff and supports your decisions. She makes suggestions on how you can best cope with labor and what will help labor progress smoothly. She rubs your back, wipes your sweaty face with cool cloths, holds your head should you vomit or helps support a leg during pushing. She is likely to be close to you, if not in actual physical contact, throughout labor. She can take pictures as well, and she looks after your partner's needs and the needs of others you have brought with you. If you are having your baby at home, she prepares food, tidies up and does laundry after the birth.

Many doulas carry items useful to their trade. These are such things as a birth ball, a large, sturdy ball that allows you to get into a variety of useful positions for labor; a rice sock, which can be heated and applied to relieve pain in your back or groin; or aromatherapy oils.

A labor doula generally makes one or more visits before the birth so that you can get to know her, and she can learn about your preferences, priorities and concerns. She usually makes at least one visit after the birth to review the experience. In addition, she is available by phone both before and after the birth for help, nonmedical advice, referrals or just to listen.

Like a mother, though, labor doulas don't participate in any of the medical aspects of your care. Some women, sometimes called monitrices, do have the skills to evaluate labor progress and monitor your vital signs.

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