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Chicago childbirth expert seeks to uncloak the mystery around doulas

Jocelyn Alt, an experienced doula, enjoys the fruit of helping women through labor and childbirth.
Jocelyn Alt, an experienced doula, enjoys the fruit of helping women through labor and childbirth.
Jocelyn Alt/Ohana

Do you know what a doula is?

If you said "no," you are not alone. Even many expectant parents aren't aware that there is someone available to help them assist with the birth of a baby.

As experienced doula Jocelyn Alt gets started in her new business, she's hoping to educate people on what doulas do, along with other childbirth services available. This past spring, Alt started Ohana, a maternity services company

The Hawaiian word Ohana refers to one’s inner circle of both family and close friends. Alt hopes Ohana can become that support system for Chicago-area parents.

After six years working closely with expectant and new parents as a doula, Alt knows that many still don't know what doulas are or what they do. She answered some basic questions about doulas to help us all understand.

Q: What is a doula?

A: The term doula is defined as a trained birthing assistant who provides informational, emotional and physical support to women before, during and after labor. Doulas attend the labor with the couple and are trained in supporting women planning for all types of births, but are especially trained in natural birth techniques.

Doulas meet with clients before the birth, to provide information on the risks and benefits of choosing various interventions during birth, based on published research, and can help with the development of “birth preferences” (a.k.a. birth plans). During labor, doulas help women cope with the intensity of labor, and support women and couples in making choices that are right for them, such as natural birth or medical pain management.

In an unmedicated birth, a lot of the work doulas do involves hands-on touch and physical support to guide women into different positions to alleviate pain and facilitate smooth progression of labor, through breathing techniques, and the use of massage and counter pressure to relieve contraction pain. Once the baby is born, doulas will meet with mom to reflect on the birth process and to process her experience.

Q: Where does the word "doula" come from and what does it mean?

A: The word doula is derived from the ancient Greek language, where it literally means "a woman who serves."

Q: Is it difficult to tell people about what you do?

A: Sometimes! A common confusion people have regarding what doulas do is around delivering the baby. It is important to note that a doula does not deliver the baby, and would never take the place of a woman’s medical provider. Similarly, people think if they have a partner with them they do not need a doula.

Doulas are not meant to replace the mother’s partner. In fact, doulas can enhance the interaction between mom and partner by providing guidance on how to best support mom during labor.

Q: Why is having a doula important?

A: The highest goal for a doula is to ensure that a woman has a satisfying birth experience, no matter what that path may look like. A doula ensures that all information is communicated to the mother regarding her birth, that her wishes and preferences are clear to all medical personal, and that she feels loved and supported throughout that entire process.

Research has shown that having a doula present can increase a women’s satisfaction of her birth experience by 44 percent. This reported increase in satisfaction has been linked to an increase in a women’s overall confidence as a mother, and her psychological and emotional well-being post-partum.

Other things research has shown is a 25 percent reduction in the length of labor, a 50 percent decrease in the need for cesarean section, and a 50 percent increase in successful breast-feeding. A doula’s main goal is to use her training and experience to ensure that each woman has the best possible birth experience no matter what type of birth occurs.

Q: What types of births benefit most from doulas?

A: Because of the different types of support -- informational, emotional and physical -- any type of birth can benefit by having a doula. However, doulas receive specialized training in helping women manage pain associated with a natural birth. Doulas utilize massage, aromatherapy, hydro-therapy, movement and positioning to help alleviate pain and discomfort women experience during the natural birth process.

Women who are attempting to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) greatly benefit from a doula’s expertise in positioning and movement to help in this more complicated labor process, in addition to the emotional support that is often needed during VBAC births. A doula can be invaluable during C-sections, as she can inform the mother step-by-step what she will experience once she enters the operating room, and can be a source of support for the partner and family during the process.

The birthing process is often a time of confusion and stress. Doulas aim to provide information, emotional and physical assistance in any birth situation to diminish the stress, and allow the expecting parents to concentrate on the miraculous event of welcoming a new member into their family.

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