Laying the groundwork: What is a birth doula?

Doula series footnotes · Laying the groundwork: What is a birth doula?

For their internship with the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, Rachel Ryan and Sarah Lipo had to learn more about the role of birth doulas. Listen to their reporting experience and hear from birth doulas in Oregon and Minnesota by listening to this short podcast, hosted and produced by Rachel and Sarah.


LaSherion McDonald: “What is that, what is a doula?”

Michelle Smith: “I always encourage moms, if you are unsure of what a doula is: Look it up. Ask someone or ask a provider to connect you with someone. But definitely, we are worth giving a shot.”

Emily Jadhav: “I like to think of it as one of the best kept secrets of the birth work world.”

Sarah Lipo (host): “If the term doula sounds unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. We were in the same boat eight months ago when we started our internships at the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. I’m Sarah Lipo, a senior at Marquette University.”

Rachel Ryan (host): “And I’m Rachel Ryan, a graduate student at Marquette. We’re part of a reporting team that wrote a series called “The state of doula care.” It published in The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post that elevates critical stories about women and gender.”

Sarah Lipo: “When we first started working on this project, we had to understand what birth doulas do and why they matter. So we talked to doulas across Oregon and Minnesota to learn more about their work.”

Rachel Ryan: “But before we share what they told us, it’s important for listeners to know that there are all kinds of doulas: community-based doulas, full-spectrum doulas, postpartum doulas, bereavement doulas and even end-of-life doulas.”

Sarah Lipo: “And for the purposes of this conversation, we’re focusing on birth doulas. Birth doulas provide emotional, informational and physical support to birthing people before, during and after labor and delivery.”

Rachel Ryan: “Let’s hear more about what doulas do for birthing individuals. Here’s Oregon doula Elizabeth Reed.”

Elizabeth Reed: “We advocate for them, for their birth choices, kind of help them prepare, understand all that there is in the birth journey, especially for first time families it’s really important. A birth doula can really help direct the experience into where they want like, find their goals and their visions of what the family desires. And then we help kind of navigate that experience and help them achieve that to the best of our ability.”

Sarah Lipo: “Doulas usually build trusting relationships with their clients during the prenatal period. Lia Becvar, another doula from Oregon, said this is especially helpful during the birth.”

Lia Becvar: “Usually people have babies at the hospital. And then you arrive at this hospital, which you don’t know anyone. If you have a doula, you already have someone who knows what you’re going through.”

Rachel Ryan: “Now that you have a better idea of how doulas are helpful for birthing individuals, let’s talk about common misconceptions. Here’s a question Oregon doula Hanne Smith gets all the time: What is the difference between a midwife and a doula?”

Hanne Smith: “Midwives have medical training, and they are responsible for the health and safety of the birthing parent and the infant. Doulas do not have medical training. So they have to be very careful about not stepping over that boundary. They do know many practical methods that are associated with keeping parents comfortable, grounded and well-prepared for their birth.”

Sarah Lipo: “Confusing midwives and doulas isn’t the only misconception about doulas. Oregon doula Michelle Smith said that some people don’t recognize the importance of a doula, especially in the medical field.”

Michelle Smith: “I think a common misconception about birth doulas is that they’re not needed. A lot of times, due to lack of information, people just assume that doulas do what nurses do or nurses can do what a doula does. That’s not to say that a nurse can’t, but we as doulas are trained to serve the mom. We’re trained to be aware. How to read a room, how to read body language, how to read the moans of a mom in labor. There’s certain things that we offer and we bring to the table that a nurse wouldn’t be able to understand.”

Rachel Ryan: “Research shows that those who have continuous labor support, such as a doula, are less likely to report negative feelings about childbirth. Oregon doula Emily Jadhav shared her thoughts about a woman’s satisfaction after labor and delivery.”

Emily Jadhav: “I think the huge benefit and advantage is the satisfaction of the women after the birth. When they look back on their birth and there’s a sense of, ‘I did that.’ And that comes from not having a perfect birth, but it comes from having somebody with you who believes in you and helps you navigate the choices. So that you really feel like what’s happening in your birth, you are choosing that. And that’s where empowerment comes from.”

Rachel Ryan: “After talking with these doulas, it was clear to Sarah and me that they had a passion for their work, so we wanted to know what their favorite part of the job was. Minnesota doula Hadijatou Sanyang described the moment a birthing individual reaches a critical and stressful point during labor.”

Hadijatou Sanyang: “You will hear a woman say, ‘I cannot do this. I don’t care anymore. This pain is so - i don’t know.’ They will just give up. But as soon as that baby comes out, they forget every single thing about that pain. They just place that baby on their chest. ‘Oh, my baby, I just love you.’ They will look around in that room: The doctors are there. The nurses are there. They will hold your hand as the doula and tell you, ‘Thank you for your help.’”

Sarah Lipo: “Minnesota doula LaSherion McDonald said helping Black birthing individuals have the birth they want is an important part of her role as a doula.”

LaSherion McDonald: “You know, I just want to make sure that every woman enjoys her birth. Because, you know, including myself and a lot of other Black women, we just have these horrid birthing stories in the hospital. These birthing stories that will just make your skin crawl. Having the opportunity to make that not a reality. Birth should not be the most stressful and traumatic part of your life. It should be happy and life-giving.”

Rachel Ryan: “Before starting this work, Sarah and I didn’t realize just how important doula care could be.”

Sarah Lipo: “Then, we talked to the people who are on the ground, working to make birth the best it can be for everyone.”

Rachel Ryan: “Now, our eyes are open to all that they do. Who knows? I might even have a doula walk me through my own pregnancy someday.”

Sarah Lipo: “If you want to learn more about doulas and their important work, visit to read some of our team’s work.”

Rachel Ryan: “We hope you learned more about the ‘best kept secrets of the birth work world.’ This is Rachel and Sarah from the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, signing off.”