Doulas: What They Are & What They Do

When it comes to healthcare, many people find that a combination of practices and practitioners work best for them. For example, a person may see both a physical therapist and an acupuncturist to help with an injury, while an expectant mother may visit an obstetrician for check-ups, but have a midwife perform the actual delivery. 

This also applies to the rise in popularity of hiring doulas to offer support during a pregnancy or during a terminal illness. If you’ve heard the term “doula” before, but aren’t sure what they are or where they fit within the healthcare spectrum, read this article to understand what a doula is and what they do — and what they don’t do. 

What is a Doula? 

A doula is a trained professional who provides non-medical emotional and educational support either to a mother before and after childbirth (a birth doula) or to a terminally ill patient before they die, and to their families afterward (an end-of-life doula). Basically, a doula performs the emotional support roles of a friend, family member, and sometimes, a therapist, in order to help make the birth or dying process, and the accompanying emotions, easier.

What Do Birth Doulas Do?

Birth doulas help expectant mothers before, during, and after childbirth. While there are numerous non-medical things a new mother may need help with, here are a few services birth doulas often provide:

  • Help prepare a birth plan
  • Suggest position ideas or breathing techniques to ease pain
  • Offer emotional support to both mother and family
  • Act as advocates for the family so that they get the right information to make informed decisions 
  • Help train new parents on things like bathing, diapering, and breastfeeding 

What Do End-of-Life Doulas Do?

End-of-life doulas, also known as death doulas, work with terminally ill patients to provide emotional support, and help them complete special tasks before they die. They also provide support to families, such as by spending time with patients to give a break to family caregivers. While each agreement between doula and patient is different, some things an end-of-life doula may do include:

  • Helping patients write, or record, their final goodbyes
  • Putting together memory books or photo albums
  • Help patients fill out important paperwork such as end-of-life directives or gather account information so families to have easy access to bank or loan accounts
  • Assist with funeral or memorial planning
  • Be there to listen and hand-hold for someone in their final hours

What Don’t Doulas Do?

While some doulas may have medical training, they do not offer any medical care while on doula-duty. Delivering a baby, giving medication or medical advice, and anything directly related to a medical procedure stays in the hands of the healthcare professionals. Some insurances offer coverage, but many do not, with most families paying doulas directly out of their own pockets.  

Benefits of Hiring a Doula

  • Unlike a nurse or doctor who may be scheduled different shifts on different days, a doula can provide constant care and will intimately get to know a patient and their wishes and needs
  • Because a doula spends so much time with their clients, they notice physical or emotional changes in a patient and can alert a nurse or doctor if needed
  • Since insurance does not usually cover a doula, the details of the arrangement regarding tasks and time are agreed upon by the doula and client directly
  • A doula doesn’t judge or go against a client’s wishes — they are the unbiased support people need when at their most vulnerable 
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