How Doulas Work

doula, Leanne Stiles doula, Leanne Stiles
Certified labor doula Ana Hill helps Leanne Stiles prepare for her upcoming birth. Hill assisted Stiles during her first pregnancy too. Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The childbirth experience has undergone total transformation since the days of dads hanging out in waiting rooms proudly handing out his pink or blue cigars. Since the 1970s, fathers have been allowed in the delivery room, followed later by other family members and even friends. Nowadays, a mom may have even more company in the delivery room, with a doula by her side.

The word doula is Greek for "female slave," or "female servant" but the true scope of a doula's responsibilities is far greater than wiping a woman's brow and fetching ice chips. In fact, doulas are trained childbirth coaches whom expectant, laboring and postpartum mothers turn to for educational, physical and emotional support. Due to the nature of the business, the vast majority of doulas are women who've given birth themselves, although men certainly can take up this line of work [source: Rochman].

The term "doula" was assigned to the emerging field in 1976, but the career path didn't gain traction until the 1980s. This increase in doula use was due to a rising incidence of cesarean sections (C-sections). In response, mothers-to-be started having a trusted woman in the room, like a childbirth instructor or nurse friend, to serve as their labor and delivery advocate. The idea was for those advocates to help prevent unnecessary, often routine procedures known to lead to C-sections [source: Papagni].

Today, more pending parents are enlisting the help of doulas than ever before, with 6 percent of people surveyed in 2012 reporting that they employed a doula, a marked increase from 3 percent in 2006. What's more, 27 percent of those surveyed indicated that they'd like to use a doula [source: Declerq et al.].

"A doula is very skilled in the area of empathy for what often feels like a monumental task," explains certified birth and postpartum doula Jenny Bennett who owns Expecting the Best Birth in the Washington D.C. area. "Doulas have competency in the area of facilitating conversation between clients and providers, so if there's a need for clarification or additional facts in order to make an informed choice about a drug or a procedure, we can help," she says via email.

Even though doulas have been in the U.S. for more than three decades, there's still quite a bit of confusion about what they do. Keep reading to find out more.