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What is a Doula?

by | Apr 19, 2024

Caring for mothers during birth and postpartum is an ancient tradition known to all cultures. This caring support has been occurring since the beginning of time around the world, but in our modern cultures, many families no longer live in tight-knit communities, resulting in the loss of essential community support. The good news is– Doulas now provide the loving support and care to mothers and families that historically was provided by their village. 

The word “doula” originated from an ancient Greek role of “female servant.” In our modern times, the word doula has come to mean a trained professional who supports people through birth, postpartum, and even death. 

So what is a doula and what kind of care do they provide today?

A basic foundation of doula care is that a mother who is nurtured through labor, birth, and the early postpartum period is better able to nurture and care for herself and her infant.

Currently, our focus at Sierra Childbirth Institute is training birth doulas and postpartum doulas. We believe that all families deserve to have a doula, no matter their socio-economic situation. 

What does a doula do?

Birth Doulas provide non-medical care and support before, during, and immediately after birth. During pregnancy, birth doulas work closely with the family to augment their childbirth education with evidence-based information and help them prepare for labor, birth, and postpartum. During labor and birth, birth doulas offer continuous non-medical care and support—they may suggest comfort measures like guided relaxation, specific positions and movements, touch and massage, and the use of hydrotherapy. They will also stay by the mother’s side to support them if medical intervention is necessary and if medical pain management like an epidural is chosen. Birth doulas also often provide education and support with breastfeeding and infant feeding, and help families prepare for and adjust to life with their new baby. The birth doula’s focus is on helping mothers and families have a positive birth experience.

What are the benefits of hiring a doula

  • Lower rates of anxiety and depression before and after birth
  • Less use of pain-relief medication during labor
  • Shorter labors and higher chance of spontaneous vaginal births without the use of instruments 
  • Fewer preterm births and c-sections (cesarean sections)
  • Higher satisfaction of birth and lower risk of birth trauma 
  • Better communication between pregnant people and their healthcare providers
  • Lower healthcare costs

What a doula doesn’t do

A doula does not…

  • perform clinical tasks, such as vaginal exams or fetal heart rate monitoring.
  • make decisions for the family.
  • speak to the medical staff on the family’s behalf.
  • replace the partner during labor.

Doulas support the mother’s partner too

Birth Doulas provide emotional support to the mother and their partner. The doula will…

  • teach the partner prenatally about normal birth and the comfort measures to support their spouse/partner.
  • allow for the partner to participate at their own comfort level, most often as primary emotional support. Doulas follow the lead of the partner. 
  • provide reassurance, encouragement, and a calming presence to feel more confident and relaxed.
  • help partners understand what’s normal and not normal during labor and birth. 
  • make sure that the partner’s needs are met—i.e., taking breaks and staying nourished and hydrated.
  • provide skilled labor support which in turn frees up the partner to be primary emotional support for their partner and to enjoy the birth of their baby. 

Doulas support families in all birth settings and birthing scenarios

Birth doulas work alongside the medical staff in hospitals, birth centers, and homes to provide holistic care and advocacy for the mother’s and family’s needs and personal choices. 

What is the difference between a doula and a midwife?

Midwives provide primary clinical care during pregnancy, birth, and the immediate postpartum period. Doulas provide non-clinical care such as emotional, informational, and physical support during pregnancy, birth, and the immediate postpartum period.

How to become a doula

The first step to becoming a birth or postpartum doula is to attend a doula training workshop with a trainer or school, such as Sierra Childbirth Institute, that provides certification through a certifying body, which in our case, is DONA International. Workshops are typically held live, either in-person or online and are generally anywhere from 3 to 5 consecutive days long or held weekly one or two days a week over several weeks. 

As with most certifying organizations, attending a workshop is only one step toward certification. In addition to attending a doula training workshop, there’s usually required reading and resources to gather in the community you’ll be serving. Most certifying organizations also require you to gain some practical experience. For birth doulas, this means attending a few births as primary labor support, and for postpartum doulas, serving a certain number of families. DONA requires three. 

Once you complete all your requirements you submit them, along with a fee and an application for certification, to the certifying body. Once certified, the certification is good for a certain number of years—3 or 4 is standard. Most organizations also require that doulas keep up with their continuing education to recertify. Recertification is generally quite simple—you submit the certificates for the CEUs (Continuing Education Units) you earned, along with a letter of continued interest and a recertification fee.

How much does it cost to become a doula?

The cost of becoming a doula varies depending on who you train with, but you can expect to invest anywhere from around $700-$1,500 with most of the well-known training organizations. The cost will include tuition for the doula training, membership with the certifying organization, books, and certification application fees. You may be able to reduce your investment with workshop scholarships to reduce tuition and lending libraries and used book resources for the required reading books. 

How long does it take to become a doula?

It’s difficult to say how long it will take each person, since everyone is different and some are more eager than others to start working as a doula. In general, those who are motivated to launch their doula practice after attending a training workshop often become certified in 3-6 months. For most doulas the biggest obstacle is getting hired, so be sure to read my other post on How to Get Hired After Attending a Doula Workshop.

Even after training doulas sometimes lack the confidence to launch their doula businesses. At SCI we provide personal coaching and group mentoring to new doulas, whether they’ve trained with us or another organization. 

I hope this information has been helpful in giving you some direction in becoming a doula. You are choosing a noble profession that helps our families and communities thrive.

Stay tuned for my upcoming posts on How to Find Clients After Attending a Doula Workshop, for tips on finding those first few clients, and Do I Need to Get Certified to be a Doula? to learn about the value of certification.