Origins Of Doulas

When I say I am a doula I usually get two responses. 

Either the person I’m talking to has never heard of a doula and they say “Oh you are a jeweller?” 

Or if they HAVE heard of a doula then they ask “How many births have you been to?”

Which is funny either way because I don’t make jewellery AND I’ve never been to a birth.

So I usually skip saying that I’m a doula :) 

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Today the word doula (if you’ve ever heard of it) is synonymous with birth support, but it wasn’t originally intended that way.

Anthropologist Dana Raphael was looking for an answer to why breastfeeding was so difficult for women in our culture after being disappointed by her own personal experience. She explored nearly 200 different cultures and found similar postpartum care patterns occurring universally. What she found is profound: 

“I had discovered that there was a physiological process (breastfeeding) that needed to have something in place in the culture or else the lactation function would not work. I don’t know of any other biological process that needs the culture to supply support... If you don’t have that support, usually you cannot feed your baby.”

Dana Raphael went on to coin the word ‘doula’ — in its modern sense — to mean breastfeeding support person. She says that she was talking about her discovery when she was overheard by an elderly Greek woman who said, “Oh yes, that’s a doula.” 

In fact, the Greek origins of the word doula are dubious, but the name stuck! And doulas still improve breastfeeding rates.

Over time, our industrialised hospital system has meant that doulas have stepped into the birthing room to offer emotional and practical support there.

But it wasn’t always this way, it’s possible birth was originally a more solitary activity for humans, just like it is for other mammals. Many anthropologists and researchers agree that birth progresses most smoothly when it is undisturbed and unobserved including Sarah Buckley and Niles Newton. If you’ve explored how to have a natural birth I’m sure you’ve come across Michel Odent’s concept of a knitting midwife.

Some anthropologists and researchers (including Michel Odent) go a step further and suggest that occasionally in hunter-gather societies birth is actually a completely solo event. Examples are seen in the Eipos tribe of Papua New Guinea, Kung people of the Kalahari desert as well as some First Nations people of Canada.

Today birth is most definitely NOT a solo event! Not only will there be doctors and missives (often strangers) there will also be many machines that go ping. Today inviting MORE people (ie a doula) in your birth room is actually sometimes what is needed to give you the privacy and safety needed for birth to go smoothly.

But let’s not forget about the bit afterwards! Even in those cultures that birthed alone women returned to their extended family and rested for 40 days, and were fed and nurtured and nourished. This is truly where continuity of care shines!

So let’s keep doulas in the birth room AND doulas for postpartum too.