When I tell people I am a birth doula, the usual response is: "Doula? What's a doula?" Even after I reply that a birth doula is someone who provides comfort and support to a woman giving birth, I still get puzzled looks. "Are you a midwife?" people invariably ask.
The confusion is completely understandable. The term doula has only been used since the 1970s; however, the roots of this word stretch back for centuries to a Greek term referring to a woman who personally serves another woman. In many cultures, it was customary for a laboring woman to be attended by other women in her family and community.
Postpartum and Birth Doulas
Today there are two types of doulas: postpartum doulas and birth doulas. A postpartum doula provides physical and emotional support to the mom and her baby once they are home. The postpartum doula can help answer questions about caring for the baby and breastfeeding. She will also shop for groceries and provide childcare so Mom can rest.
A birth doula supports a woman in labor. She's professionally trained and may even be certified in labor support, though she doesn't use any medical skills, doesn't offer medical advice, and doesn't deliver the baby—which is what makes her different from a midwife.
A doula may have personal experience with birthing her own children. She is caring and compassionate, yet emotionally detached from both the mother and her partner. She is knowledgeable about a variety of laboring and birthing matters and is available to discuss the pros and cons of advice from the medical staff. She does not make decisions for the mother nor does she speak to the staff directly about the mother's wishes. Rather, she reminds the mother of her birth philosophy and asks her questions that empower her to be her own best advocate.