When Rachel Sklar went into labor, she had someone in the delivery room to cheer her on, massage her feet, and even snap the first photos of her daughter, Ruby. That person: Sklar’s birth doula, Maddie.
“She was a real value for my safety, sanity, and comfort,” says Sklar, a New York–based single mom who hired Maddie to have a support system present at the birth. “I felt lucky to have her in that space with me.”
Unlike midwives, who provide clinical and medical assistance with childbirth, doulas offer emotional and physical support for women in labor. Perhaps their most important role: helping women relax during labor, which tends to progress faster when the body isn’t stressed. Studies have shown that a doula’s presence is associated with everything from shorter labor times to reduced odds of having a doctor administer Pitocin, the drug that induces labor.
What’s more, research has found that doula-assisted moms are two times less likely to experience a birth complication and also have lower Caesarian-section rates. “Patients who want to give birth with less intervention are more likely to get that outcome if they have an advocate,” says Dr. Larry Leeman, medical director of the Maternal Child Health Program at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Instead of an epidural, for example, the doula may suggest the mom take a soothing bath to help alleviate pain.
Working in tandem with doctors, doulas can help mothers in labor process the information being given to them and navigate the best options. Regarding labor-speeding methods like starting Pitocin or breaking the water: They’re not necessarily medical requirements, but not all women realize that. “Doulas help explain things to the patient and back to the doctor,” Leeman says. “When you’re in labor, it can be hard to explain yourself.”
The cost of a doula varies by region but can range from $800 to $2,500. Finding the right person can be a matter of asking other moms for suggestions or using sites like doulamatch.net. You’ll want to hire someone whose philosophy matches your own—if you’re planning to request an epidural the minute you arrive at the hospital, for example, you might not want to hire a natural birth doula. “Make sure that person makes you feel safe,” says Chicago-based doula Hillary Scharmann. “If they annoy you in the interview, it’s likely they’ll annoy you when you’re in labor.”
What’s a postpartum doula?
A cross between a nurse and a mother, postpartum doulas can help new moms adjust to life post-baby and keep an eye out for atypical levels of depression. Chicago mom Kelly McNees calls her postpartum doula an “angel” who provided an assist after her C-section. “She helped me with nursing and babywearing, filled my fridge, and did laundry,” she says. “She was worth every penny.”