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Doulas: Easing Birth

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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."

Continuous 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.

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