When you look up the definition of “doula,” you’ll probably read about a person who helps women through pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. But that’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t fully capture how rich a doula’s support can be. As a doula myself, I'm here to walk you through the wide world of this essential role.
What Does a Doula Do?
Doulas have been in the news a lot lately. More people are finally listening to the experiences of Black women — for whom the maternal mortality rate is three times higher than non-Hispanic white women — and research shows that doulas can help improve health outcomes and birthing experiences.
But there are many different types of doulas. Some volunteer their services; some offer a sliding fee scale; and in some cases, doula costs are covered — at least in part — by insurance carriers.
Doulas can be hired to provide support in specific situations. A birth doula solely supports people during pregnancy, labor, and birth — whether they are women, trans men, or nonbinary people. Full spectrum doulas support a wider range of reproductive and life experiences — including people who are postpartum, trying to get pregnant, or going through adoption, abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, and even death.
All of these experiences can be complex, overwhelming, and even lonely, so doulas bring a strong level of sensitivity to our work. We also have a thorough understanding of the impacts of bias, privilege, systemic racism, and barriers to care, which helps us meet the people in our communities where they’re at and provide the specific support they need.
Of course, doulas and the people we care for vary. But generally a doula's expertise is non-medical and includes physical and emotional support as well as information and resources. Each client has different needs and we are trained to meet them in holistic ways. More importantly, we help people step into their own power. When a client feels their own power, they understand that they get to make the decisions about their own care and are able to negotiate their options for treatment and services — they feel more calm, grounded, and strong.
Here’s how doulas support their clients:
We help protect their peace. Doulas help their clients prioritize self-care. No matter what season of life they’re in, we help our clients identify and tap into the best ways to take care of themselves.
We champion the needs of our clients. Doulas help advocate for their clients and support them in advocating for themselves. We’re laser focused on their individual needs, and we use our expertise and community relationships to help them get the resources they need to make informed choices and speak up for themselves.
We get answers and find resources. Doulas provide our clients with information so that they know what to expect and connect them to other community resources and referrals, like lactation consultants or pelvic floor physical therapists.
We help address health disparities. Doulas understand that racism, bias, and discrimination have blocked many people's access to health care. So we help clients navigate a medical system in which their needs are often ignored or neglected.
Jade Hillery is the director of training and learning design in the Education and Training Department at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She earned her MPH from the University of Southern California and is a trained full spectrum doula, childbirth educator, sensual movement instructor, and placenta encapsulation specialist serving the Washington, D.C. metro area. She is a proud, Black, independent business owner who advocates for and works to provide compassion, education, and support across the spectrum of health outcomes and choices.