What Exactly Is a Doula?

Published on: May 15, 2014

Doula…what a funny word. What does it mean? What do they do? A BAMBI mom and resident doula explains to those of us who have never heard the word what this professional actually does for expecting mothers and why you should consider having one.

By Rasee Govindani, certified doula  

​I have always had a hard time explaining why I became a doula. Growing up, birth was not something I gave much thought to. My mother, at 21 and 25, had scheduled Cesarean sections to birth me and my brother, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I might have thought about natural birth for about five seconds, not knowing what that really meant. In 2008, I was working as a writer and editor at Agoda, a job I wasn’t particularly thrilled with, while waiting for my fiancé’s visa to the United States, when I noticed a small advertisement in the BNOW newsletter inviting women to come and be trained as doulas. I’m not sure I even knew what a doula was at that point, but something “clicked” inside me.

The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “female slave,” which isn’t very flattering, mind you, and doesn’t really describe what we do.

​Over the next three months, I trained with Denise Love, affectionately known by many in Bangkok as “Mumma Doula,” an Australian registered nurse and doula who had been living in Bangkok for many years and worked in birth for just as long. After the first class, I knew I wanted to be a doula. I had always wanted to educate, empower, support and serve women, and I had found my calling. After training with Denise, I moved to the United States and became a certified doula through DONA International. I worked as a doula in the States for a couple of years before moving back to Bangkok in April 2011, where I have lived and worked as a doula ever since.

So, what is a doula?

The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “female slave,” which isn’t very flattering, mind you, and doesn’t really describe what we do. A doula supports a woman through pregnancy, labor, and birth. Our training covers the physiology of birth—what happens in a woman’s body during labor, what amazing natural cocktail of hormones are released and how perfectly the system works.

A doula does not replace the woman’s partner, but instead supports the entire family during labor and birth

Also, doulas are trained to know how to best support an expecting mother on her journey; whether through encouraging words, massage techniques to alleviate the discomfort of labor or the skills needed to best communicate with hospital staff.

There is research that shows that continuous support by a doula can shorten labor, reduce the chances of a Cesarean section and other inventions, improve Apgar scores, increase breastfeeding and help women have more satisfying birth experiences.

Does a doula only support natural birth?

Photo by Adam McGuffie via Flickr

Not at all. The heart of our responsibility as doulas is to support women. While I lived in the States, I definitely found that the women who hired doulas were planning natural births, but I have been with women during a number of different kinds of births—natural, medicated, planned and emergency c-sections. In Bangkok, we are hired for a variety of reasons, regardless of the birth that a woman is planning. Giving birth away from your home country is very stressful and having a doula present is like having a guide who understands the way things are done in hospitals in Bangkok and can help facilitate communication between couples and the medical staff. We are trained to help women find ways to cope with labor if she would like to forego medication, but we are not against the epidural or Cesarean sections.

What about my partner?

​A doula does not replace the woman’s partner but instead supports the entire family during labor and birth. Most of the time neither parent has been through labor before and partners often have their own worries and fears. Having someone present with the experience and knowledge that a doula brings can be comforting and allows the partner to focus solely on supporting the laboring woman. If you can’t quite get the hip-squeeze just right or you really need to eat something, a doula is there to relieve the partner, ensuring that the woman is as comfortable as she can be and never, ever alone. ​

There are often times when I find myself sitting in the corner of the room quietly while the couple works beautifully together to manage labor. But after ten hours of being awake and not eating a thing, a doula can gently suggest the partner take a nap or get something to eat, taking over the role of support person.

How does hiring a doula work?

​When a woman is interested in hiring a doula she either contacts us through the “Doulas of Bangkok” Facebook page or by emailing one of us. My role in our group is to reach out to our working doulas and see who may be available for her due date, which means the doula must be available two weeks before and two weeks after a due date. A couple will interview the available doulas, receives a contract that specifies fees and services provided, and then makes a decision.

Giving birth away from your home country is very stressful and having a doula present is like having a guide who understands the way things are done….

​Starting two weeks before the due date a doula is available 24/7 (including at 2 am, which is usually when the phone rings) for her client. This means that she stays in the city and accepts that she may have to cancel whatever plans she has made to be with her client. I always recommend that women text me as soon as they start to feel any signs of early labor. Often we will text back and forth until the couple feels they need my support and then I will either go to their home or meet them at the hospital. I stay with my client until the baby is born and usually an hour or two postpartum. We then do two postpartum visits to make sure all is well.

But what does she DO exactly?

​Whatever the woman needs. I have squeezed hips bent over a tub for hours, I have rubbed backs and feet, I have said “breathe” over and over again, I have wiped away sweat and tears, I have said absolutely nothing at all. I open bottles of water and hunt for straws and wipe wet floors and go for coffee runs. I encourage and I soothe. I cry and I laugh. (You would be surprised how much laughing there can be during labor.) I make promises that the pain will end soon and I cheer women on as they push their perfect little babies into the world. Afterwards, I wipe away blood and I tell a new mother how absolutely amazing her little one is while she is being stitched up. I am present and I am open. ​

If a Cesarean is planned, I make sure that my client has all the information she needs about what she can expect to happen, I stay with her before surgery and stay at the hospital until she is back in her room a few hours later. I provide more postpartum services in this case, with more visits at the hospital and home to ensure that breastfeeding is going well and she is coping with this new responsibility while recovering from surgery.

As an expat mom, who might be far away from her family, thinking of making an addition to your family, why not consider a doula for that extra support—and in the process, you just might make a lifelong friend.

For more information about our doulas and events, please see our Doulas of Bangkok Facebook page.  

Cover photo courtesy of the author.

About the Author

Rasee is a birth and postpartum doula and childbirth educator. She is also a mother to a six-year-old. Rasee is co-founder of Beyond Boobs (@beyondboobsbangkok), a source of support and information for women dealing with breast cancer in Bangkok.

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.