For both my births, I had a doula who helped, comforted, and gave me strength.
woman in labor
Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

When I share the story of my second birth, I'm often met with stunned faces and questions about how I did it. I gave birth to a healthy, but huge, 11-pound, 2 ounce baby boy at home. I'm no superwoman, but I like to think I had one by my side. For both my births (the first was to a "normal" sized baby at the hospital), I had a doula who helped, comforted, and gave me strength.

Research shows that women who have doulas present at birth tend to have shorter labors with fewer complications and less of a need for caesareans, Pitocin (a drug which induces labor) and other medical interventions. In honor of World Doula Week, I wanted to share what my personal experience taught me about doulas.

1. It's really, really nice to have someone focused on you.

During labor, the doctor or midwife is focused (mostly) on your baby. Your husband or partner is focused on not freaking out. And the doula is there simply to focus on you. Whether it's helping you with pain relief, talking you down from the ledge when you find out you're "only" three centimeters dilated or simply turning off that music that is suddenly SO annoying, she's got your back.

When I experienced complications post birth, I was scared and started going to a dark place mentally. My husband was with the baby, the midwife was focused medically on me, but luckily my doula was emotionally there with me. She explained what was happening, held my hand and gave me what I very much needed in that moment.

2. They are marriage-savers.

At some point during labor, you'll probably hit the point where you need to lash out at someone. And that person is probably going to be your partner. Hearing your husband (who got you into this predicament) tell you to "just relax and breathe" when you're in active labor can make you want to breathe fire. Yet hearing a doula say the same thing can sound lovely and helpful.

When my husband pulled the car around to take us to the hospital, I was in active labor and leaned over the hood to get through a contraction. While leaning down, I noticed we had a flat tire. Suffice it to say, it was good to have a level-headed third party present in that moment.

3. When you forget everything about your birth plan, they'll remind you.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted an epidural with my first birth—I wanted to play it by ear. I'd never experienced labor so how could I know in advance how it would feel? As it turned out, by the time we got to the hospital, I felt like the idea of the epidural was scarier than just continuing to ride out the waves of contractions. But, the hospital wanted me lying flat in bed with monitors on and I couldn't manage my pain in that position. I needed to be able to walk. Though I knew my rights and what I could ask for or refuse, all that knowledge left me in the moment and I felt confused and pushed by hospital staff. Terms like "intermittent monitoring" weren't on the tip of my tongue while in the throes of back labor. While the doula won't speak to doctors directly for you, she can helpfully whisper in your ear that you don't have to do that or you could ask for this instead.

4. It's comforting to see a familiar face during delivery.

With my first labor, I knew there was a good chance my doctor wouldn't be present at my birth. She was part of a big practice and whoever was on call would attend my birth. I tried to meet as many of the other doctors as possible during my office visits, but still when it came to the birth, a stranger was there to deliver my baby. With my second birth, one of the reasons I decided to use a midwife was because I wanted to know the person who'd deliver my baby. I also wanted my doula to be there again because I liked having someone there who knew how the first birth went down—there was something about the continuity that was comforting. But, as these things go, my baby was two weeks late, my midwife was at another birth when I went into labor, her back-up was also attending another birth and I once again had a stranger deliver my baby. But, I had my doula there whom I knew and trusted and felt a sense of security that helps you to relax and open yourself to birth.

I found my doula to be invaluable at both my births. Not everyone wants or needs one, but if you're hoping for a natural birth, it's your first birth, or maybe your last birth didn't go as planned, you might want to look into hiring a doula. If you'd like to find a doula, a good place to start is with DONA International, an organization that trains and certifies doulas. You can also ask friends, your doctor or midwife, or childbirth educator for recommendations. I found mine at a prenatal yoga class she teaches.

Tell us in the comments: Did you use a doula – what was your experience like?

Tracy Odell is the General Manager of Meredith's Lifestyle Group and mom of two boys who were most definitely worth all that labor pain. Follow her on Twitter at @tracyodell.