The word “doula” is derived from an ancient Greek word that is becoming increasingly more mainstream in today’s modern times. In ancient Greek the word means “female servant” and does not specifically have anything to do with childbirth.
In 1969 Dr. Dana Raphael first used the term doula in a study discussing how the role of a female caregiver during birth and postpartum had a positive impact on breastfeeding. The term became more widespread in the 1970s and 1980s as the role of a doula became broader but more defined. This was also a time in medical history when the birth process in North America had gone through dramatic changes. Birth had moved away from homes and midwives and became increasingly more medicalized. Micromanaged hospital births and an alarming amount of unnecessary interventions were seen only as amazing advances in modern medicine with no thought of the possible negative long-term effects. Many women did not want to birth this way and knew they would need emotional, physical, and educational support to give birth “differently” then most women of that time were doing.
While using the term “doula” to describe this type of support started in North America, and only in the last 50 years, the care provided by a doula is not a new concept. Throughout all of history, across most geographical locations and demographics, women have provided support to other women during birth; not just a single midwife, but usually multiple women fulfilling different roles during the birth. This was often family members or women of the village or tribe who had experience in childbirth.
Doulas now are held to a specific scope of practice. They are strictly non-medical professionals who can provide a wealth of educational, physical and emotional support for women during pregnancy, birth and the immediate postpartum period. Doulas now are not just women! A small but expanding number of doulas are men. As a profession, doula care is growing. Doulas are now able to create a sustainable career doing what they love. With more reputable training organizations and continuing education options available, a doula can offer even more support to expectant families.
The medical community is also backpedalling, their research showing that “less is more” when it comes to medical intervention and the powerful impact the role of a doula can have on both the physical outcome and emotional satisfaction of a birth.
Doulas today are also not just for birth! The role of a doula to provide educational, emotional and physical support is applied to many stages of life. Here are some of the most common types of doulas:
Birth Doulas provide support during pregnancy, birth and the immediate postpartum. This includes prenatal education and emotional support through email and phone communication, as well as prenatal meetings. During the birth the doula will be present, providing support to the laboring mother and her partner (and sometimes the couple’s other children, if present). After the baby has been born she is available to help with feeding support (breast or bottle), newborn care and questions the mom has about her postpartum recovery.
Postpartum Doulas provide education and practical support to the mother, newborn and family in the first days, weeks and sometimes months after birth! Their role continues where the birth doula left off. They are a wealth of knowledge about newborn care and tips. They also provide practical support such as light housework, cooking, running errands and tending to the newborn so the mother can rest, shower, or go out for some fresh air!
Fertility Doulas can help families who are struggling to get pregnant. They provide educational support by explaining the various tests, treatments and alternative care options available in their community for those facing infertility. She provides emotional support through the overwhelming disappointment and stress that often comes with going through fertility treatments.
A Bereavement Birth Doula has received special training to care for the emotional and physical needs of a family who is experiencing a loss through miscarriage, stillbirth, or an anticipated loss through a terminal diagnosis of an unborn baby. Like a birth doula, they can provide support during pregnancy, birth, and after the loss. In the days, weeks, months, (years!) after, this doula can help the family navigate the emotional waters of grief as well as connect them to other local resources.
End of Life Doulas support to people through the dying process, at any age. These doulas are commonly employed through hospices, hospitals and nursing homes. They provide companionship and encouragement to dying patients. They also provide comfort to the patients loved ones if present.
Doula work truly is a "labour of love". Regardless what stage of the human life a doula is supporting, the type of care remains the same. Compassionate, unbiased, nurturing care.
“The ancient Greek “doula” was there to listen and follow the wishes of the mother, offering her services and life experience, but also aware of the humbleness her position asked for.”
-[International Doula Journal, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2013]