What even is a doula anyways? Here's what you need to know

Louise Roy, perhaps the only certified doula in a city of 23 million right now, explains how her role can support parents-to-be

Photograph: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash
‘I’ve been talking about doula support for a long time,’ Louise Roy (just possibly the only certified doula in a city of nearly 23 million right now) says over a cup of coffee. ‘There have been many, many parties where I introduce myself and say, “Oh, I’m a doula”. And they’re like, “A jeweller?”, looking at my lack of jewellery, going “Really? You’re like the worst jeweller ever.”’ Roy laughs heartily. ‘I’m like “a dooooula”.’

Affable, easy-going and a breeze to connect with, Roy is exactly the kind of person that you’d want along on your pregnancy journey. She’s certified as a childbirth doula by accrediting body Childbirth International and provides prenatal education, lactation counselling and client support at Ferguson Women’s Health. Shanghai has had peaks and valleys in terms of doula offerings but the newly launched Birth Doula Support Service programme that Roy steers at Ferguson is, at the moment, one of the city’s only options. But what exactly is a doula anyway? Roy tells us all of that and more below.

Louise Roy with her family. Photograph: Don Yap, Barefoot Portraits

It’s a catchy word, but what exactly is a doula?
A doula is actually an ancient Greek word for a female assistant. In older times, the person who assisted your labour and birth was a servant in your household – usually a woman. So that term became used for doulas in the modern age, generally hired (though some people do it for free) for informational, physical and emotional support as well as advocacy.

Photograph: Omar Lopez via Unsplash

Doula vs. midwife, go.
That’s the big question that most people ask, what’s the difference between a doula and a midwife. A midwife will direct care and has a lot of training in terms of actually physically catching the baby as it comes
out. The doula will have – if they are from a certified organisation – done study and certification in anatomy, physiology, birth and counselling skills.

So what does that look like in practice?
Doulas have to know everything about the pros and cons of all the medical direction, to be able to give informational support. If you’re in labour, and the midwife or doctor says, ‘I think you need this,’ the doula has to be able to say, ‘Here are the pros and cons, these are the recommendations in our country or around the world, here are other options, and it’s up to you to decide what you would like to do.’

The advocacy part comes in turning around to the medical staff then and saying ‘Mary has some questions about this and some other options,’ and opening it up so that you, the patient, can have that discussion. If you have a doula come in and do all the discussion for you, then it’s their birth, not your birth.

What about the physical and emotional side of it?
It’s a one-to-one, continual support service. You meet prenatally and go over birth plans, learn different positions of labour and birth, massage techniques for partners to be involved and practice that beforehand. Throughout the whole journey, there’s unlimited contact in terms of phone support, email, WeChat about ‘This is how I feel – is that normal? Should I go to the doctor?’

Then during the labour and delivery, the doula is there for as long as it takes from whenever you feel that you need the help. It can be 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours of working together with family and friends to do physical and emotional support. ‘You can do it. You’ve got this. You’re doing great. This is totally normal. Everything is fine.’ Or literally giving a back massage for 48 hours straight. It depends on each woman, but there are the aspects to it.

Find out more about doula services in Shanghai at Ferguson Women's Health.

Read more