Birth doulas: The benefits and the tensions

When she pictured her birth, Meghan Ward wanted a support person who would be with her from start to finish. Her first choice was a midwife, but there wasn’t a midwife in the Bow Valley, Alberta region where she lives. As a compromise, she found an obstetrician for her maternity care and started looking into a doula to be with her for the duration of the birth.

Ward ended up with two doulas, one of whom was in training. The doulas met with Ward leading up to the labour and discussed positions she could try and pain relief techniques. Doulas do not provide medical care. Instead, during Ward’s labour in the hospital, “they had a very hands-on approach and did a lot of massaging,” Ward says. “They offered little mantras here and there, encouraging me to relax and breathe.”

After 28 hours of labour, Mistayah was born. In her incredibly fatigued but blissful moments with her new daughter, one of her doulas brought Ward a fruit-and-vegetable smoothie, “which is exactly what you want in that moment.” For Ward, the $900 that she spent for the support she received in pregnancy, labour and post-delivery was well worth it.

Ward is part of a growing trend. Doulas, who provide psychological support and non-medical pain relief techniques during labour, are becoming more mainstream in Canada and elsewhere. DONA International (formerly called Doulas Organization of North America), the largest association for doulas, had 4,500 members around the world in 2002. Today, there are more than 6,500 members and almost 1,000 are Canadian, according to Sunday Tortelli, president of DONA International. (Anyone can join DONA, so members include both trained doulas and those who are interested in being doulas.)

Doulas are almost always women, and there are no formal requirements for training or registration. Depending on the geographical location and how many hours a doula works, the total cost of hiring a doula can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.

Many organizations train doulas but DONA is the most recognized. To be certified by this organization, doulas must meet several standards, including attending 28 hours of courses on such topics as the stages of labour, pain relief techniques, listening skills and breastfeeding.

Doulas argue that the women they assist have better outcomes in birth. But some health professionals worry that unregulated doulas could be providing patients with misleading information that could encourage women to refuse recommended medical interventions. Others worry the growth of for-hire doulas represent access barriers to patient-centred care in the health system.

The evidence behind doula services

Several studies have examined whether or not the support of a doula improves birth outcomes, but as a whole, the evidence on doulas “is flawed” says Gareth Seaward, head of the division of Quality Improvement & Patient Safety in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital. For example, some studies don’t follow enough patients while others don’t account for pre-existing differences in patients who used doulas versus those that didn’t.

So far, the only clear conclusion one can make comes from a review of 22 trials that looked at the effects of continuous bedside support during labour. Depending on the trial, the support person was a nurse, doula, midwife, other lay supporter or someone in the woman’s social network. As this review shows, “one-to-one emotional support in labour does appear to be associated with less interventions and a higher potential for a vaginal birth,” says Seaward.

Seaward points out that the continuous support person during labour doesn’t need to be a doula – it could be a family member, friend, midwife or nurse. But supporters of doulas point out that in that review, the lowered rate of caesarean sections, induction and some other interventions was most pronounced when the support person wasn’t a hospital staff member nor in the woman’s social network, and was present solely to provide one-to-one supportive care.

Interestingly, Lisa Weston, who is now president of the Association of Ontario Midwives (AOM) but used to work as a doula, points out that studies suggest that low-income women may benefit the most when provided doulas.

What’s behind the growth of doulas?

Doulas are not covered by any provincial health care plan. But doula services have started to be funded by some private insurance plans, which may be contributing to their increased use. In May 2014, Sun Life Financial made doula services eligible for funding under its “health spending accounts” which includes funds for chiropractors, massage therapists and other non-medical services. Caroline Creighton, the insurance company’s media relations manager, said that only a portion of plan members have health spending accounts and what percentage of a doula’s fee is covered varies widely.

In addition to financial coverage, the doulas and medical professionals we spoke to mentioned a shift away from bedside support to more technical monitoring in hospital births as a reason women may desire a psychological and hands-on support person.

Though many hospitals have implemented a strategy of assigning one nurse to one woman in labour, “nurses have less time to spend with the patient now than they did 20 years ago,” says Doug Wilson, head of obstetrics and gynecology at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. “Things are more technical, there’s more fetal monitoring to do.” Because of this, nurses may not be able to provide as much emotional support as they did in the past.

Weston says she appreciates doulas on the births she attends now as a midwife because she doesn’t feel guilty about moving away from her patient to enter the baby’s heartbeat. “I can’t necessarily be the one rubbing her back when I’m charting in the computer,” she says.

Gisela Becker, director of midwifery services for Alberta Health Services, argues, however, that midwives offer the personal and continuous care that patients are looking for when they seek out doulas – and that many, like Ward, approach doulas because they don’t have access to midwives.

Patients across Canada aren’t always able to access midwives. In Alberta, where the government has capped funding for midwives, there are only 90 practising midwives, says Becker. Even Ontario’s 740 practising midwives are unable to meet the demand for their services, says Weston. The AOM reports that 40% of women who would like a midwife are unable to access one in the province.

The fact that family doctors in Canada are delivering babies less often could also contribute to the increase in doulas. Whereas family doctors have historically followed patients from admission in the hospital until delivery, many obstetrical practices are set up as teams, so who is on shift will deliver the patient’s baby. “I didn’t know who would be delivering my baby until I was in labour,” says Ward.

Do doulas offer medical advice?

The DONA International position paper states that doulas should not offer medical advice and that doulas “do not project their own values and goals onto the labouring woman.”

But a 2010 survey of 400 doulas across Canada found that doulas do give medical advice, with 79% saying they suggest clients try non-pharmacological pain relief opportunities before an epidural is administered.

Although there is evidence that medical interventions such as epidurals can sometimes have negative effects, there are also times when they are the best option. For example, an epidural can be needed to allow a woman to relax enough so that labour can progress and in some cases, if an epidural isn’t used, a Cesarean section may become necessary, explains Seaward.

Tortelli says she personally feels that a “physiologic” or unmedicated, vaginal birth without the aid of instruments “is better for mom and baby.” She shares studies on medical interventions to aid women as they create a birth plan, but says her own preferences don’t factor into conversations.

Guelph, Ontario-based doula Dawn Humphrey also has risk and benefit conversations with pregnant women on interventions like epidurals. She says her role is “to help guard the plans mom has put in place” but also explains she can help a mother feel confident in changing those plans by ensuring that the mother understands why an intervention is being offered. To ensure informed consent, she suggests patients ask questions of the medical team, such as, “What would happen if we just continue to do things the way they are?”

One Toronto-based obstetrician who doesn’t wish to be named argues doulas usually don’t have the medical training to educate patients on the benefits and risks of medical interventions in labour. She worries that based on the information they receive from doulas, women can develop a birth plan that eschews medical intervention. In some cases, the obstetrician has seen doulas advocate for such “natural” birth choices on behalf of a labouring mother, even when medical intervention is indicated.

Doulas who encourage births without medical interventions can also negatively affect women psychologically, the unnamed obstetrician said. She recently saw a patient who was told by a doula that “her post-partum depression occurred because she had a Caesarean section, which she had for a potentially life threatening situation,” she explained. “This idea that birth is somehow all within your control is unhelpful.”

The obstetrician made clear, however, that doulas who unreasonably discourage medical intervention in birth are a minority.  “Most of the time I’ve found doulas to be respectful of me as a provider,” she says. “And they can help a woman to roll with the punches if things evolve over the course of a labour.”

Communication between doulas and medical staff key to avoiding conflict

As doulas become more common, Wilson argues that doctors should have conversations with patients who have or are considering hiring doulas so they understand that doulas are not trained to provide medical advice.

Doctors and nurses can also learn from doulas, however, in how to emotionally support and inform their patients. Humphrey points out most obstetricians don’t spend time discussing the pros and cons of medical interventions with patients ahead of labour – thus, doulas may be filling a gap. (This information is provided on hospital websites and in optional hospital classes, which often charge a fee.)

And for hospital wards where continuous labour support can’t be provided by nurses or other hospital staff, doulas could be especially beneficial. Currently, however, those who may not have access to continuous support during labour and could benefit from doulas – low-income mothers – are the least able to afford doula services.

The comments section is closed.

  • Nicole Gaythorpe says:

    As a certified Birth Doula and Breastfeeding counselor through the International Doula Institute, we are taught specifically what our scope of practice is! We are not medically trained and therefore do not suggest or recommend anything that should otherwise be discussed with your midwife or ob, we will however give you resources for things you are curious about or will recommend speaking with a professional for specific situations.

  • Lee says:

    Doulas are pushing mothers out of the picture with their daughters. Moms to be like to think that these Doulas are from some magical island and know all. Where are they getting their information, there’s a plethora of different philosophies and trends, so which one do they follow. Evidence based means little. You can find 100 pro and 100 con for the same philosophy that has evidence of very good or very bad. I think their also substitute BFFs which is pathetic because they’re being paid to pretend to care.

    • Allie says:

      Hi Lee,
      I am curious how you believe Doulas are pushing Mothers of the labouring individual out? I am sought by my clients, not encouraging them to shut the family out. There have been many wonderful instances where the Grandmother and the Doula work together as well. However, we are often sought because our clients want something different from us than can be provided by their own mothers. Please realize that in labour women say and do things they wouldn’t normally and they are often concerned that it may negatively impact their current relationship. We, as professionals, can provide support without the strings attached that other relatives have. Their birth experience is for them, not us. I repeat, their birth experience is for them, not us, not their extended family. You also insinuate that we are being paid to pretend to care. I am often hired by my clients months in advance, if not at the beginning of their pregnancies. Over that time we build bonds that extend beyond the date of birth. Your comments are sweeping generalizations and are not based in fact.

  • Claudia says:

    There are lots of volunteer doulas in Canada, who provide their service for free to women who cannot afford the fees, just for the record.

  • Leah says:

    Doulas who are doing their job properly, which is most of them, help women to surrender to whatever birth is necessary for them. Doulas support parents emotionally through the course of labour and delivery. It is part of a doula’s duty to help parents respect and trust their healthcare providers, so that they feel safe and supported on their journey. Yes, doulas discuss benefits and risks of medical interventions, and this helps parents make informed decisions and know when medical assistance is beneficial to a healthy and happy outcome. I support the B-R-A-I-N method of decision making during birth: reviewing Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, listening to your Intuition, and considering the effects of doing Nothing. This helps avoid unnecessary complications while helping parents understand the importance of medical interventions when they are the best options.

    I agree that doulas can bridge a gap between families and healthcare givers and every family should hire a doula that has lots of training and demonstrates a respect for both nature and medicine. I am a certified Childbirth Educator with ProDoula (PDCCE) and completed extensive research and practice before certifying, so my clients know that I have a wealth of accurate, evidence-based, non-biased information to provide.

    The physical comfort measures offered varies between doulas. My personal style includes deep massage and light-touch massage on the bas, feet, legs, arms, hands, head, and face. Additionally, I offer hot/cold packs for use on the lower back, essential oils (when permitted), music therapy, hydrotherapy, positive encouragement and affirmations, use of my TENS unit, and more. My goal is to increase comfort and pleasure throughout birth, no matter what way a woman gives birth! I support epidural births, cesarean births, non-medicated birth, and home births! Everyone benefits from doula support. My Toronto doula business prides itself on its relationship with both clients and healthcare providers.

  • Peter G M Cox says:

    Selected data from “Health at a Glance 2013 OECD Indicators” for 11 European countries plus Australia – those with similar GDP and healthcare expenditure per capita to Canada – indicates that Canada employs fewer gynaecologists and obstetricians per 100,000 women than ANY of these comparable countries and around 50% fewer than the average; this data also shows that we employ FAR fewer midwives per 100,000 women and about 90% fewer than the average. Data from the same source for those countries indicates that Canada has the highest rates of “Obstetric trauma, vaginal delivery with instrument” and “…without instrument” and around double the average.

    Is it possible that the relative “shortages” of gynaecologists, obstetricians and midwives in Canada is related to the relatively high levels of vaginal delivery traumas?

    And is it possible that the juxtaposition of these statistical “facts” (presuming that OECD data is reasonably “good”) is, at least a partial, explanation for the recourse of pregnant Canadian women to doulas?

  • Jessica Benedict says:

    I love how this writer conveniently chose the featured comment above to be a quote from the one comment that they thought was in support of their point of view…….lol

  • Colleen bell says:

    Good piece! I am very glad to have had midwives for both births, but I did consider (when I was first unable to get a midwife) getting a doula. At the same time, %featured%I deeply agree with the statement about how unhelpful is is to assume that one can control what kind of labour they have. I think some postpartum trauma is connected to the disjuncture between expectations and reality.%featured%

    • Heather Dolimont says:

      That’s what having a doula would have done for you, is make sure your expectations and your reality become one and the same. That’s the majority of a doula’s job right there. And you’re right, quite a bit of postpartum trauma is linked in with a woman’s expectations being too unrealistic of what the labour process is going to be like. This, unfortunately, is not a good piece because it clearly paints doulas out to be incapable, uneducated women who have the ability to do more harm than good for their clients. In reality, so can midwives. So can doctors. So can nurses. The choice to highlight a well known fact that any type of health care choices made surrounding pregnancy and birth can either negatively or positively affect a mom-to-be is kind of pointless. This was not a well researched blog, this was a bias piece pretending to be a well researched blog. I’m never a fan of something that says it’s one thing and is the complete opposite. Doesn’t instill very much confidence in the information it’s trying to relay, wouldn’t you agree?

  • Heather Dolimont says:

    As a mother who had both of my children with the attendance and assistance of midwives, I find this article tainted and flawed in its account of how important doulas are to ALL women. And I say this because while I had pretty great support from my midwives for both births, at the end of each, I still felt a gapping hole somewhere in my experiences that I only understood after the birth of my second daughter. And that, namely, is that midwife or not, the health care professional who is caring for you and helping you deliver your baby has only ONE concern at the end of the day. That the baby is born healthy and the mom is healthy throughout as well. Emotional health factors into that only a PORTION of the time, and that’s the actual reality of the matter. End of story. But as a mom who lost control of her breath while pushing because of the pain and the exhaustion, all I needed was someone to be right by my face, showing me how to gain control back. NONE of my midwives were able to do that for me because that was the KEY time they had to be concentrating on helping me push the baby out!
    Low income women DO benefit from doulas, absolutely. And you’d know that low income women get serviced by doulas at a discounted or pro bono rate more often than not, if you’d actually done your research. Which it appears that you have not done, in any consistent way.

    And I agree with Kim as well, it is too bad that the very few doulas out of everyone who are out there, who are purposely overstepping their boundaries and scope of practice are the ones who have tainted this view for yourself and in turn for all your readers considering doulas from now on. Get to know your topic better and maybe you would actually end up writing a truly unbiased article on it instead of what this is. Clearly biased.

  • Kim Healey-Fernandez says:

    It’s unfortunate that doulas who are likely untrained and not working within their scope has tainted the view of the benefits of doulas for these medical professionals. Also it should be made clear that %featured%doulas are not just there to support unmediated birth. We support a woman’s choice on how she wishes her birth to go. And we recognize that there are times when interventions are necessary. A doulas job, in part, is to ensure a woman and her family have all the information in order to make informed consent and encouraging self advocacy to ask their care provider questions to make the best decisions possible at the time.%featured%

    My training organization, CAPPA (Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association) has the most professional and stringent scope of practice in the industry and parents need to do their due diligence in hiring trained, certified, and reputable doulas. As an unregulated health profession anyone can call themselves a doula. Parents please ensure you are hiring one who has the training and background from a long standing, professional organization.

    And to the medical professionals, we are there to work as a team, and provide mum with the emotional and physical support you can’t. We are a vital part of the team and when we work together the mum, the baby and the whole family benefit. How is that a bad thing?

    Kimberley Healey-Fernandez

    Head Doula – Toronto Doula Group

    CAPPA Labour and Poatpartum Doula Trainer


Wendy Glauser


Wendy is a freelance health and science journalist and a former staff reporter with Healthy Debate.

Irfan Dhalla


Irfan is a Staff Physician in the of Department of Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital and Vice President, Physician Quality and Director, Care Experience Institute at Unity Health Toronto. Irfan also continues to practice general internal medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital.

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