Having both utilized a doula for my own births, and acted as a doula for others' births, I have found them to be invaluable in getting through pregnancy, and especially labor & delivery.
A friend of mine (who I offered to act as doula for her labor) recently shared that her husband was less than enthusiastic about having another person at the birth, and didn't quite understand what my role would be. My friend explained that her husband thought I must be quite a hippie. When she asked him to explain, he said, "I don't know....with a name like "Doula", she must be a little off....." Laughingly, my friend explained that my name wasn't "Doula." That's just the name of the role I would be performing during the labor and delivery.
What exactly is a doula? While doulas have been around for many, many moons, there still are not many women who utilize their services. The word "doula" is Greek in origin, meaning "a female birth companion." A doula can be either a birth doula or a post-partum doula. Birth doulas attend birth, and may help prepare women during pregnancy for labor and delivery. Post-partum doulas attend new mothers during the difficult days following delivery. Many doulas offer their services both at birth and post-partum.
In the book, Mothering the Mother, the authors explain that using a doula has been shown to result in less need for pain relieving medication, fewer operative deliveries (forceps, vacuum extractor, Cesarean section) along with fewer episiotomies. Babies typically tend to be in better condition at birth, and mothers report more positively about their birth experience than not. This could be a result of the fact that a doula is continually looking to making your labor and delivery as comfortable as possible.
Your doula will use a variety of techniques to help with the pain of labor, especially during transition. She may move your body in different positions when you are feeling like you can't handle it anymore. During transition, you tend to become very suggestible, and while trying to be helpful, your doctor or nurse may suggest pain medications. During my own labors, when I would get to that point, my doula would say to me, "You've already done it. You're almost there." This is just what I would need to get me through the rest of my labor, and I would deliver shortly thereafter.
While you may utilize anyone who you believe would be a fantastic support person during your birth and after, there are many who have chosen to make helping women during pregnancy, birth, and afterwards their careers. There are multiple organizations providing professional certification for doulas. DONA international, Childbirth International, and ICEA provide programs preparing and certifying those seeking credentialing as a doula. These professionals typically charge anywhere from $200 to $600 or more per birth. Because of the increasing popularity of having a doula at the bedside, many hospitals offer their services, and a web search will turn up a plethora of names. You can also ask your doctor or midwife for a referral, as they have probably worked with many doulas with their past patients.