Doula. It's a weird word, one that you may not have heard -- yet. These birthing assistants are used in only a small percentage of deliveries, but the trend of hiring a doula (the Greek term for "female helper") is growing. And with good reason: A spate of studies has shown that childbirth with a doula can shorten labor time, significantly reduce the use of pain medication, and cut the need for cesareans by half. Thanks to these findings, the number of certified doulas in the U.S. has surged during the past two decades. "The fact that doulas were satirized on Frasier [Daphne and Niles hired, then fired, a doula during one episode] said that we had arrived," notes Ann Grauer, immediate past president of DONA (Doulas of North America) International and a birth doula for 16 years.
Doulas are not medically trained -- they don't deliver babies, replace a doctor or a midwife, or play the role of a nurse. Rather, a doula is there to comfort the mom-to-be -- to relax, reassure, and guide her. "A lot of women doubt themselves during childbirth," says Carolyn Ogren, of Middleton, Massachusetts, a doula for 37 years. "A doula's job is to soothe a woman's fears and to help her through labor." And unlike doctors, nurses, and midwives, who often have their hands full attending several patients at once, doulas can provide continuous care to a woman throughout her labor.
In addition to offering constant emotional support, a doula is trained to provide pain relief through such methods as massage, breathing techniques, and water therapy. "My doula was a tiny woman, but so strong," says Kristine Talbott, a Laguna Niguel, California, mom of two. "She massaged my back during contractions while my husband talked me through them. I ended up not needing any pain medicine at all."
A study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology found that women who used doulas were not only significantly less likely to have an epidural but much more inclined to rate their birth experience as good. "I used a doula for my second baby," says Erica Browne Grivas, of Glastonbury, Connecticut. "I felt so excited to be able to deliver without medication that it made me forget all the difficulties I'd had with my first birth."