A doula is a trained birthing assistant who provides support during labor and delivery (the word "doula" is actually a Greek word meaning "female helper"). Although they're used in just a small percentage of births in the U.S. each year, the trend of hiring a doula is on the rise, and with good reason: Several studies have shown that giving birth with a doula by your side can shorten labor, reduce the use of pain medication, and cut the need for cesareans by half.
Doulas are not medically trained and cannot replace a qualified doctor, midwife, or nurse, but they can help reassure a laboring mom and help her relax. And unlike doctors, nurses, and midwives, who are often treating several patients at once, a doula will remain by your side throughout your labor. A doula is also trained to provide pain relief through nonmedical techniques such as massage, breathing, and water therapy for women who want to attempt birth without drugs.
To decide whether you should use a doula, first discuss with your husband how he feels about having another person around at this intimate time. In many cases, a doula is a great resource for nervous dads-to-be who may be unsure how to help during labor. If your partner wants to be involved, a doula can show him massage techniques and reassure him that everything's all right. If he doesn't think birth will be his time to shine, then the doula will take over, freeing him to encourage and comfort you.
Although most doulas serve as birthing assistants, some are even available to remain with you after you bring your baby home to offer advice on breastfeeding and caring for your newborn (ideal for first-time moms). To find a doula check with your obstetrician, childbirth educator, or one of the major doula organizations like DONA International (dona.org), International Childbirth Education Association (icea.org), or the Association of Labor Assistants & Childbirth Educators (alace.org). Remember that the cost of doula services can vary greatly, running anywhere from $250 to $1,500, and most insurance companies won't cover the cost. --Rebecca Felsenthal