Being a doula

November 9, 2005

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When it comes to having a baby, women in the UK increasingly report feeling let down by the NHS. A shortage of midwives who are no longer at liberty to offer consistent emotional support and a rise in caesareans often turns what should be a joyful, positive experience into one of fear, loneliness and vulnerability. And unless you are one of the Paltrows or Beckhams of this world, spending thousand of pounds on a private midwife and birthing clinic is not an option. Faced with this bleak outlook, women are turning to the support of doulas.

Doula is a Greek word meaning servant or care giver, but today refers to someone who supports women throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Unlike midwives, doulas do not offer medical support and do not change shift during labour. Instead they aim to “mother the mother” in much the same way as midwives of hundreds of years ago. They fill the gap of absent female relatives and, in the case of single mothers, partners. Although doulas advocate home-births, they assist in all settings, including hospitals.

Annie Branson, 46, a doula from Chiswick, west London describes her role as a birthing buddy, facilitating the mother’s wishes: “It’s the birth that the mum wants. If the mum suddenly wants to go out in the garden, you all go out into the garden.”
Research shows having a doula reduces the duration of labour, decreases the chance of caesarean section, decreases the need for pain relief, gives partners the confidence to participate and increases the success rate of breast feeding.

Doulas also support the mother before and after the birth. Branson’s typical day could involve making a house call to a mother-to-be, give support and help her draw up a birth plan. She also visits women who have given birth. Branson will do whatever she can to ensure the mother’s wellbeing, whether that is a break from the baby, doing a pile of ironing or offering tea and sympathy. Just by visiting once a week, a doula can reassure new mothers and relieve feelings of isolation, despair and depression.

At some point during the day, Branson may get a call from one of her clients who has gone into labour and will rush to give her support. Reena Hughes is one of Branson’s clients and a full-time mother of two. Branson visits to give her a massage and check how mother and baby are doing six weeks after the birth.

Hughes is smiley and relaxed, and attributes much of her well-being to Branson: “I had a very difficult first birth and then my mum died recently, so I really wanted a support through my second daughter’s birth. Midwives are just interested in progressing the birth, but a doula gives a different kind of support.”

Branson is in agreement: “Looking back I wish I’d had a doula at my birth. My daughter’s dad came, but he passed out. It was awful my birth, that’s probably why I’ve taken the role on because I know how bad it can get.”

Branson has been a doula for nearly a year, has assisted at eight births and currently assists at one birth a month. After A levels in art and cookery, she became a member of in-flight cabin crew, a position she still carries out part-time. After 20 years in the same job, and with 23 year old daughter Sophie no longer at home, she sought the rewards of being a doula.

Branson says: “What better job than bringing new life into the world? It’s a fantastic job really and it’s something I can do until I’m eighty. I love children and I’m a very empathetic hands-on, touchy feely person.”

But being a doula is not for everyone particularly those who are squeamish or put off by blood and bodily fluids. It can also be an exhausting job. Labours last anywhere between three hours and three days, and you have to be awake and supporting at all times.

There is a limit to earnings as doulas cannot take on more than two births a month without risking a clash of births. “It’s not a money making job,” Branson warns. “The mum has got to know that you’re going to be there for her.”

Being a doula is not just about the labour. You effectively have to be on 24 hour call for a period of three weeks. “The thing about being a doula is that it is a commitment,” Branson says. “Once the mum has said I’d like you at my birth, you can not go out and socialise. The baby can arrive two weeks early or two weeks late. For that period you can’t go on holiday or go to party far away. You’ve got to always be a phone call away.”

But for those who chose to become a doula, the job is hugely rewarding and exciting. Many women enjoy being in a nurturing, mothering role after years of being a mother or grandmother and bonding with other women and children.

Having given birth yourself would be an advantage but it is not a requirement, and Branson says there is no reason why a man cannot be a doula. Similarly some women who become doulas already practice as midwives or in some area of complimentary therapy, but again this is optional. Branson emphasises the importance of reassurance: “The biggest thing to have is that empathy with the mum, because you are there as a supporting friend. When it comes to the crunch, she needs you to encourage her and tell her it’s going to be alright.”

How to become a doula

Qualifications
There is no compulsory training to become a doula.
To be recognised by Doula UK it is necessary to undertake a training course.
There are two-day workshops to find out more about being a doula.
There is a choice of four different training courses in the UK recognised by Doula UK lasting several days. See doula.org.uk for times and locations.
Training should be continual throughout a doulas career.

Rate of pay
Doulas usually charge between £300 and £600 for a pre-natal and birth support package.
A doula could expect to assist on two births a month.
Post-natal visits are usually charged at £10-15 an hour.

Contacts
Doula UK
PO Box 26678
London N14 4WB
0871 433 3103
doula.org.uk

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