May is International Doula Month. That's nice, but what exactly is a doula?
In Greek, the word means a woman who acts as a woman's personal servant and who is on hand for childbirth. Today, a doula is more specifically a non-clinical, certified birthing specialist. Her job is to provide "continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and after childbirth," according to the authors of "Mothering the Mother."
Think of it as having a nurturing, educated best friend at your beck and call during pregnancy, labor and birth.
Doulas are trained to give reliable support to the mother and family, as well as to help the parents make informed, educated decisions about the birth of their child. A birth doula accompanies a woman in labor and assists her emotionally. A postpartum doula continues emotional support and guidance, helping a family make a smooth transition into new family dynamics.
In the Wood River Valley, Larsen Peterson has been working as a doula for 15 years and has been involved with the birth of "well over 250 babies."
Peterson is also the St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center coordinator of childbirth education. In that capacity she organizes and teaches childbirth preparation classes and classes for new mothers.
"After the birth of my first child, I personally thought it was the most empowering experience of my life and that's what sparked my interest in becoming a doula and teaching childbirth classes," she said. "A lot of women came in with a fear of childbirth, which made me sad. I wanted to see if I could change that."
Peterson, who was living in Seattle at the time she began practicing, knows that women have an idea of what their perfect birth experience will be like, but that there are "many variables in labor."
"I help the parents stay focused," she said. "It's hard to make decisions in the middle of labor."
Typically, when the call comes from a laboring client with whom she's been working for several months, she heads to the hospital.
"I assess the mother's needs and fill whatever role is needed. I tell myself to match the rhythm of the labor. I fall into my place. I don't take the place of the medical staff."
Some hospital staffs are not supportive of having a doula present for the birth of a baby, but, Peterson said, "the St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center staff is very supportive and we all work together as a team."
"One father told me that my being there freed him up to experience the birth on an emotional level. I'm a hundred percent present with the moms and dads. I believe strongly that a woman's birth experience has a lasting effect on her life."
Peterson believes that if the parents have a positive birth experience, they can start parenthood with a higher level of confidence, which leads to stronger relationships and a healthier family life.
"I had three C-sections," one of her clients, Tizz Miller, said. "Larsen was amazing in terms of helping my husband. To have an advocate for you is very, very helpful. My husband recommends her to everyone. It was very reassuring, especially the first time. Scott went with the baby and Larsen went with me when I was in surgery. I can't imagine going in there alone. It would have been really scary. She's so knowledgeable."
Use of doulas is on the rise. Doulas of North America, the world's oldest organization of its kind, grew from 750 members in 1992 to more that 6,100 today, working in 20 different countries. As a mainstay of labor, doulas are now an accepted part of childbearing. Contrary to many people's expectations, doulas do not encourage one form of childbirth over any other.
"Every labor is unique. I support what a woman wants for her individual birth experience," Peterson said. "I support a women's right to an epidural or whatever option she chooses. If a woman knows that she's exhausted every resource possible to have a vaginal birth and ends up with a caesarian birth, it's still possible to have a great birth experience. The number one goal is healthy mom, healthy baby."
The World Health Organization states in "Care in Normal Birth: A Practical Guide" that "continuous empathetic and physical support resulted in benefits, including shorter labor, significantly less medication and epidural anesthesia."
Doulas represent that philosophy, as they have for centuries.