Women supporting women in labour and early mothering is an ancient and widespread practise. According to anthropological data reviewed and analysed from 128 non-industrialised hunting and gathering and agricultural societies, all but one offered support for the mother during labour and childbirth. In the animal kingdom, similar support can be found. When a bottle-nosed dolphin gives birth to a calf, other adult females in the pod will assist the new-born by keeping it afloat until the mother has regained her strength or until the calf can fend for itself. Similarly, adult female elephants that live in closely related family units of females with their young, are supportive of each other especially during labour and birth.
The word doula comes from Modern Greek and derives from a Greek dialectical word, meaning ‘servant-woman, slave’. The word doula appears in Biblical Greek as doulos which means ‘slave, bondsman, servant, attendant’. Some sources claim that the feminine form, doula, referred to the most important female slave or servant in the ancient Greek household, who probably helped the lady of the house through childbirth. There is no available evidence to support that specific distinction but this is what the word ‘doula’ has come to mean today, ‘a woman experienced in childbirth who provides continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during and just after childbirth’.
Doulas were first spoken about in a book written by anthropologist Dana Raphael (1976) called ‘The tender gift: Breastfeeding’ where the doula is referred to throughout the book as a helper, supporter and teacher for the new mother. Dana defines a doula as ‘a woman who goes into the home and assists a newly delivered mother by cooking for her, helping with other children, holding the baby, and so forth. She might be a neighbour, a relative, or a friend, and she performs her task voluntarily and on a temporary basis.’ Dana saw the role of the doula as crucial in the postnatal period to support and assist the new mother with breast feeding. She writes: ‘the doula’s help is crucial if the mother wants to breastfeed. Her care and handling could save the day. Her presence could save the mother’s milk.’
So, we've established that there are two types of doulas, birth doulas and postnatal doulas. Some doulas chose to fulfil both roles whilst others concentrate on providing just birth support or postnatal support. However, the function of a doula varies in different cultures and can include support before childbirth with education and information for the couple, support during the birth of the baby and help with cooking, washing, bathing and other baby care after the baby has been born. Whatever the doula does, it is actually less important than the fact that she is there!
A doula’s true value is her presence as a calm and kind influence on the new parents and not her qualifications.
Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.