Story last updated at 2/25/2009 - 11:35 am
JUNEAU - The word "doula" meant slave or servant in Ancient Greek, but the contemporary definition doesn't carry such negative connotations. A doula is a person who acts as an assistant to a woman during pregnancy, labor and as long after birth as necessary.
There are several differences between doulas and midwives, though they are commonly confused. Midwives are trained clinical care providers who are experts in normal birth. They are qualified to check vitals and to identify any medical issues that may arise during pregnancy and delivery.
Doulas, on the other hand, are present strictly to support the mother and her family. They are trained to be extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of childbirth and act as emotional, informational and physical support. Doulas perform no clinical duties and can be present in any birth setting, whether at home or at the hospital.
"It's basically someone who is there who knows a lot about childbirth, who knows you really well, and who has sort of developed this relationship with you during your pregnancy so they can give you really good support during birth and afterwards, too," said Shayna Rohwer, a certified doula.
Rohwer works on staff at the Juneau Birth Center and is one of about 10 doulas who are active in Juneau. She said that the doula program has grown in popularity quite a bit in the past 10 years, but people are still largely unaware of its existence.
There have been a number of studies on how doulas impact birth outcome. Rohwer said that mothers who choose to employ a doula have lower caesarean rates, faster labor, better breastfeeding initiation, lower rates of pain medication and fewer reports of postpartum depression.
"It's about having someone that you really trust," Rohwer said. "We talk about fears, what their hopes are, and just really work with them to help it be the best experience possible. It's hard to know what you're going to need in labor if you've never had a baby before."
The doula program is partially funded by a series of grants. Rohwer said many of the mothers who seek doula support have some sort of emotional stress that makes their pregnancy more difficult. For women who have financial struggles, are pregnant at a young age or lack the support of local family members, it can be a great help to have a doula take care of all the details.
"Part of the goal of the community doula network is that cost should not be an issue," Rohwer said. "If you truly can't afford it, we'll find someone that can help you."
Rohwer said that labor is a very intense experience even if things go as smoothly as possible, so it can be a huge help for women have someone there "advocating" for them during childbirth.
"It's someone who knows you very intimately and cares about you but they're not a family member," Rohwer said. "Sometimes it's really hard for other family members to see someone they love in that kind of intense space."
Birth doula training will be available March 6-9 at the Juneau Family Health & Birth Center. The workshop is approved by the Doulas of North America (DONA) organization and will be taught by Carrie Kenner who owns and operates Big Belly Services in Seattle. The cost is $400 for first-time students and $200 for those who have been through the program before.
This is the second time that doula training has been offered in Juneau. The workshop is offered to people who want to become professional doulas as well as those who would like to learn techniques in order to support friends or family members in labor. Topics include anatomy and physiology, complications, labor support techniques and more.
After completing the course, prospective doulas must participate in three births and complete some additional study to be certified.
"We want to get people from all walks of life because it's important for people to find (a doula) they can connect to," Rohwer said.
So what is it like to work as a doula?
"Sometimes I'm there for an hour, sometimes 36," Rohwer said. "It's such a privilege. You get welcomed into their life and you get to watch this amazing event with them. It's really awesome."
For registration and more information, visit www.bigbellyservices.com or call (206) 725-7758.