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What is a Doula, What is a Postpartum Doula, and What Doulas Do, Explained

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Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

By Stephanie Santillo

When you hear the word doula, what do you think of? A support person for birth or postpartum? A helpful guide? 

Historically, new parents were surrounded by family members, friends, and other helpers who could support them. Today, that’s not as often the case—not only are there often great distances between new parents and their family and friends, but people are busier and more isolated, making these resources insufficient or unreliable. 

Doulas help fill that gap in support. They assist new parents during childbirth or the postpartum period to adjust to all of the changes that come along with pregnancy, birth, and parenting. 

DONA International, one of the world’s leading doula-certifying organizations, defines a doula as “a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.” CAPPA and Birth Arts International both include practical support in their definition of a doula, noting that doulas can help with infant feeding and care as well as light housework. 

Birth and postpartum doulas: What they do 

Doula work is its own specialty. It is not licensed, but most doulas are trained through a doula certification organization. 

In general, doulas support you in your transition to parenthood. Picture a calm, experienced person who will listen, share awesome snack ideas, teach you how to babywear, and support your partner in getting that swaddle juuust right—that’s a doula. Education, companionship, and non-judgmental support are what doulas are all about.  

Birth doulas support birth persons and their partner before, during, and shortly after birth. They can help the birth person to learn positions for labor and calming techniques, while also serving as an emotional support for the birth person and their partner during labor. 

A postpartum doula is a trained professional who is an expert in the fourth trimester (which is defined as the first three months after birth). Postpartum doulas are like a new parent coach: They provide emotional, mental, physical, and informational support to new families during the weeks and months immediately following birth. This can look many different ways, depending on your needs and preferences, but it is always family-centered, non-medical, and supportive. 

One of a doula’s most important roles (whether they focus on childbirth or postpartum) is as a trusted resource for more information. Doulas are very knowledgeable about childbirth, infant care, and what a normal fourth trimester looks like. They can help to guide new parents as they make decisions and adjust. Doulas also help to connect new parents with informational resources or other forms of in-person support, such as lactation consultants, support groups, or medical caregivers. 

What doulas don’t do 

It’s also important to understand what a doula is not:

  • Doulas are not medical caregivers. They cannot and do not diagnose or treat medical conditions. They do not administer medication of any kind. Doulas can, however, suggest specialists that may be of help based on your concerns.
  • Doulas are not midwives. Doulas provide non-medical emotional, mental, and physical support either before and during childbirth (birth doulas) or after a baby is born (postpartum doulas). Midwives, on the other hand, are trained health professionals who care for birth persons before, during, and shortly after the birth of their baby. 
  • Doulas are not nannies. Doulas are not responsible for child care, and do not look after the baby without someone in the home. They do, however, have vast knowledge of infant care tips and techniques that they teach to parents. 
  • Doulas are not night nurses or baby nurses. Doulas can work day or night shifts, but they are not responsible for child care at any time of day or while a parent is sleeping. Doulas work with parents to teach them how to care for their baby. 

A doula is meant to provide emotional and practical support for new parents in a variety of ways. Whether you need help sizing your pump flange, learning how to take your baby’s temperature, or just want someone to talk to, a doula is someone who is here for you. With their vast knowledge of newborns and their caring attention to you, doulas work with you to tackle the fourth trimester together.