What is a doula, actually?

by Clara Coppola

“What is that? Some kind of ‘white witch?’” my husband’s friend asked me.

“Who do you think you are, telling doctors how to do their jobs?” my brother-in-law snapped at me, in the middle of talking about scheduling around a birth client I had.

“Soooo… you just. You reach in and just grab a baby?” asked a co-worker.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a newly practicing doula in the Chicagoland area, it was a lot harder to find people who knew what a doula was, than it is today. Today, however, most people first learn of a doula when they hear of a famous star having a lavish birth. Supporting each other in birth is something women* have been doing for as long as there has been childbirth.

Whether it’s a lay-person who has attended births many times before, or a specifically trained one, a doula supports births (and even after baby arrives) by being a continuous source of one-on-one care, comfort techniques, and multiple types of support. Evidence Based Birth® is a great resource for the data on professional doula support, which is now becoming a widely acknowledged measure in obstetrics for improving birth outcomes.

Doulas provide physical support, including massage or acupressure.

How doulas support each individual person’s birth, though, is unique to each birthing person. Interviewing doulas extensively beforehand is a good idea, and helps in establishing what it really is that is desired. Sometimes that means a lot of physical work – holding ends of towels or birth wrap/scarves, being the supporting strong end of “the birth dance” (where the one in labor wraps their arms around the upper body of a partner or doula and is able to be in a supported squatting sway), and even trying different positions to shift (or even “sift”) a baby into optimal position. Often it simply means being able to read what is happening and what is wanted – visualizing a labor where you can eat a special meal is a great plan, right up until you are nauseated and want to somehow yell at the person helpfully bringing you that meal, but a contraction grabs your voice and YAY! Here comes the doula to swiftly grab that now-offensive plate and make it vanish.

A doula also supports the non-birthing parent in the room as well. Particularly when it is a first birth, and it’s not entirely clear what is going on in the room, it’s helpful to have a doula in the room checking in with them to see if they feel like they’re getting lost in the blur of activity, or to gently remind them that they wanted to be the one to catch baby or announce gender, or whatever other unique thing they wanted to do.

A great way to meet some of our local doulas is to join Livingston County Birth Circle on Wednesday February 12th at our Meet the Doulas Night! Expecting attendees can register here. At the time this blog post was published, there was still room for more doulas. If you’re local and in the area and want to take part, Contact us for more info.

*I use the term women in a historic-application here, but do intend for it to encompass all birthing people.

LCBC Board Member, Clara Coppola, is a CBI trained birth doula, a La Leche League Leader of LLL of Brighton, and chicken and child herder. She is also a homeschool mom of three who spreads literacy all over the place. Clara is married to an engineer and fueled by tea.