Doulas: Easing Birth
When Barbara and Christopher Lawton were planning for the birth
of their son almost two years ago, the midwife practice they were using in
Pittsburgh asked them if they were going to use a doula during childbirth.
"I didn't even know what that was," says Barbara.
A doula, Lawton found out, is a private labor assistant ... not
a doctor, not a nurse, not a midwife. Indeed, a doula (a Greek word meaning
"women supporting women") is not a medical professional at all. Rather,
she provides support and encouragement throughout labor and delivery, and
often, after the baby is born, as well.
Doulas are a centuries-old tradition, but have become popular
again in the U.S. in the past 15 or so years. "Having another woman's
presence during childbirth is very helpful," says Pam Lesser, RNC, MS,
manager of women's support services at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mo.
While many labor-delivery nurses would like to provide the encouragement that
delivering moms need, the fact is that because of the time constraints nurses
face in today's hospitals, it's not likely that one nurse will be able to
provide the support that most women need during this time.
Doulas do not take the place of a woman's partner. "The
mother's partner is an integral part of the experience and an extremely
supportive one," Lesser says. "But it's unreasonable to expect the
partner -- who is as emotionally involved as the expectant mom -- to provide
all the support."
According to the organization, DONA (Doulas of North America),
doulas are women who are trained and experienced in childbirth, whether or not
they have actually given birth themselves. The doula provides physical,
emotional, and informational support to women and their partners during labor
and birth. She offers help and advice on such measures as breathing,
relaxation, movement, and positioning. She also helps the mom-to-be (and her
partner, if one is there) gather information about the course of her labor and
options during labor and delivery. And perhaps most important, she provides
continuous emotional reassurance and comfort.
It's that word -- continuous -- that is such a vital
part of a doula's role. "My doula met me at the hospital at noon, and was
still there the following day at 4:30 when I finally saw my son for the first
time," says Lawton.
"That continuous presence is extremely important," says
Lesser. "It's a great asset. The doula never leaves the mom's side. That's
Barnes-Jewish Hospital thinks so much of the value of doulas
that in 1998, the hospital established its own doula program. Today, there are
approximately 50 doulas on staff, so that any woman who would like to have a
doula during her labor and delivery can request one. The service is provided
free of charge. Approximately 25% of the women delivering at Barnes-Jewish ask
for a doula, says Lesser.