Why you might want to hire a doula

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 Photo: Stocksy

When my sister told me that she had hired a doula to assist with the birth of her second baby I had no idea what she was talking about.

Despite having given birth twice in the preceding 20 months, I was totally clueless.

"You've hired a what?" I remember asking.

Sam's first birth didn't go the way she planned it, so when she explained that a doula is a special support person that advocates for the mother during her pregnancy, labour and birth it seemed like a sensible decision.

Reflecting on her experience now, Sam says that having a doula made a huge difference.

"I'd hoped for a home birth, but as I went into labour before 37 weeks I needed to go into hospital.

"The first doctor who attended me was keen to get me hooked up to a drip straight away to get things moving, but through discussion with my doula, and after having ensured the baby was not in distress, we decided to wait for the labour to progress on its own," she explains. 

Sam says that her doula, Karen, was a godsend. "Karen was wonderful when it came to labouring. She suggested changing position or using the shower and putting hands on pressure to help relieve pains," she recalls.  

"She also enabled my husband to be a better birth partner by telling him to do things that he wouldn't necessarily have thought of otherwise."

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Crucially, Karen also helped Sam to make decisions about the medical intervention that was offered. "I felt empowered by her presence and was clear about my choices. I am sure that without her I wouldn't have felt as confident rejecting medical intervention," she says

In Sam's case, the results speak for themselves: "I got the natural birth I had missed out on first time round," she says.

The role doulas play has been performed since ancient times. In fact, Lucretia McCarthy, a doula and mother of two says women have been supporting each other in birth for millennia.

Having said that, professional doulas are a more recent phenomenon. The term doula was coined in the 70s - it means 'woman servant or caregiver' in Greek - but they have only really become popular in the last decade.

Lucretia thinks that this is because social media and parenting forums have allowed women to share their birth experiences more widely.

So what does a typical day in the life of a doula look like?

"I spend some of the day visiting clients who are pregnant. I like to spend time with the mother and her partner discussing birth plans, hospital policy, what normal birth looks like and birth choices," Lucretia says.

"I can be called to a birth at any time. Usually I would go to a woman as soon as labour starts and support her at home for as long as she feels comfortable before going with her to the hospital."

From this point onwards, the doula stays with the mum until after the birth. 

"I usually stay until the mother and baby have settled," says Lucretia.

The doulas work isn't over with the birth of the baby - Lucretia says that the postnatal period is very important too.

"We debrief the birth and go over any questions that they might have. I also help with the common challenges such as breastfeeding, sleeping - or lack of - and anything else that comes up."

It is certainly a hands-on role. But since doulas do not get involved with the medical side of birth they don't require any formal qualifications - there are lots of training courses available though.

"For me personally, although the training I did was amazing, I've learned more from the women I've worked with along the way," says Lucretia.

While it may appear that the doula is just present to support the mother to be, a big part of her role is supporting her partner, as Kylie, a mother of two, explains.

"I liked the idea of having someone who would advocate on my behalf and stand up for my wishes, but who would also support [my partner] Dave during the labour.

"Dave also liked the idea because he admitted that it had been really hard to watch me go through my first labour and delivery, and he thought that having someone there to support both of us would help take the pressure off him in the case of a long labour."

Having a doula worked so well for the couple that both Kylie and Dave have started recommending them to other parents-to-be.

"Our doula was a tremendous support to Dave and I both physically and emotionally," says Kylie.

"I doubt I would have come away feeling as good about that labour and delivery experience if she hadn't been there."