Doula-assisted childbirth is growing in popularity year over year . Still, you may encounter surprise or dismissal from family or friends who have never heard of a doula or didn’t use one themselves. But having a birth doula is in fact a tradition that extends through many times and cultures.
Want to learn more? This brief survey of what we know about the history of doula childbirth is a crash course in understanding the history and signifiance of this important part of the birth experience.
Doula Childbirth In History
Before the 20th century, childbirth was typically an at-home affair attended by midwives and other “lay” (in this case meaning “not medically trained”) birth attendants, usually female family and friends of the mother.
In fact, there is some sociological evidence to suggest that a doula attendant has been a common and normal part of the birth experience for several thousand years at least. Many doulas bring information and traditions that have been shared with them by other, older women who have served similar roles and act as bearers of birth wisdom and tradition that have been passed down from woman to woman for generations.
Doula Childbirth In the 20th Century
The word “doula” has only been used to describe lay birth attendants since the mid 20th century. As you have likely heard, the word means “female servant” or (by some translations) slave. Starting in the 1960’s it began to be used as an anthropological term to describe these traditional birth attendants and the kind of dedicated service that pregnant and postpartum women should be receiving from them.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, when giving birth in the hospital began to surge in popularity, there was little need to discuss the idea of a doula’s formal role--having a baby while surrounded by experienced female attendants was just the expected norm. Today, when hospital birth is the default for most people, it has become important to seek out and specify that you wish to have a doula.
Doula Childbirth Today
Childbirth with a doula today typically means that a helper you have hired and signed a contract with will join you in your birthing space. In spite of the increased formality of the arrangement between a mother and doula, though, you are still participating in an ancient tradition of service and care designed to support mothers in the birth space and beyond. While a good doula is constantly re-evaluating her procedures and techniques based on current evidence, many of the comfort measures and techniques you can expect her to use during your labor are essentially the same as those that women have been using to support one another during childbirth for hundreds if not thousands of years.
More than ever, doulas are receiving specialized training (either through apprenticeship or through a certifying body), meaning that you benefit not only from traditional support techniques but from thoughtful, trained professionals with a clearly defined scope of care. There is now research that suggests strongly that with a doula, childbirth is a more positive experience marked by shorter labor, reduced risk of epidural and C-section, and greater satisfaction overall.
So, if you aren’t sure about hopping on the doula bandwagon, or if you feel like you are encountering skepticism from friends or family about using a doula or childbirth coach, remember that being attended by a doula is one of the most consistent birth traditions we know of across nearly every culture. Only since the 20th century has it become strange or unusual for a laboring woman to arm herself for birth with a compassionate and experienced non-medical helper. Today, modern doulas work to recover and restore a tradition that has occasionally faltered, but has never been lost.
What birth traditions are important to you? Leave a comment and share the modern, the ancient, or the fusion of both that you have found meaningful!
Shama Doula Services offers full-spectrum support from conception to birth and the postpartum period. Interested in learning more or scheduling a free consultation with doula Beth? Click the button to request more information and get started.