What Does a Birth Doula Really Do? We Investigate

Everything you ever wanted to know—but were afraid to ask.

Rachel Pickus

Do you know what a doula is? You may have heard the word, but do you really know what doulas do and what it’s like to be one? We’ve learned it’s best to go to the source, so we asked birth doula Patti Quintero to tell us all about it.

Quintero is the founder of Uma Mother, a platform dedicated to educating and expanding consciousness throughout pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and beyond. She’s also a mother of two and has been teaching yoga and meditation for over 20 years—so yes, she knows a thing or two about the practice.

Incidentally, we found Quintero via an especially dreamy blog post from one of our favorite brands of the most romantic dresses, Dôen, last summer, and we’ve had her in the back of our minds ever since. So we were excited when we had an excuse to ask her more about her doula experience.

“A doula in its literal definition is a servant,” Quintero tells us. A doula, at their essence, is “a person who’s trained to guide, support, provide education and information, emotional and physical support, and serve as a companion throughout a rite of passage in life such as birth, postpartum, and death.”

That’s right: You might have heard the word doula usually associated with birth, but there are also postpartum doulas, death doulas, and others. (We read an incredible interview with death doula Alua Arthur recently, but that’s another story.)

Ahead, we asked Quintero everything we ever wanted to know about the life of a doula.

How did you become a doula?

I’ve been teaching yoga and meditation for 20 years, and 17 years ago, when I was pregnant myself, I began working with pregnant mamas and teaching them how to prepare their body and mind while I myself was going through that journey.

I hired a doula myself for my birth and knew just how valuable this person was in my birth for guidance and comfort—they were essentially my lifeline when I felt lost in this unknown territory. After my birth, my students began asking me to be their doula.

I resisted for a few years, being deep in my own motherhood journey and teaching full-time; then I decided to start supporting birth in a bit of a renegade way until I finally decided to jump in formally, got trained, and have been working as a doula ever since.

Why are doulas so important?

A doula is someone who serves as a guardian and anchor in some of life’s greatest rites of passage: birth, postpartum, abortion, death. A birth doula educates and informs pregnant people and their partners so that they can make the decisions and choices that are in alignment with their hearts.

Knowledge is power, and a doula helps to inform people of their options and rights whether they are at home, at a birth center, a hospital room, or in the operating room. The comfort measures we provide vary, from massage to meditation, to hypnobirth techniques, to aromatherapy, to being a mountain of calm and grounded energy for both the birthing person and their partner.

What are the biggest benefits of having a doula?

Benefits include birth education; knowing your birth rights; understanding the different stages of labor; proper nutrition for pregnancy and postpartum and how to work with sensations and comfort measures that can help navigate the different stages; understanding medications and how they work; and understanding certain procedures and interventions if you’ve chosen to birth at a hospital or transport from a home birth.

A doula’s support can also be incredibly helpful if a mother needs to have a cesarean.

How much does the average doula cost?

Doulas range in price anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000, I think, depending on where you live, how long they’ve practiced, and what they include in their plan. Some offer more basic packages, and some offer extensive plans with classes and postpartum support.

Are there resources for women who might not have the financial ability to hire a doula out of pocket? Does insurance ever cover any doula services?

Some insurance companies cover a portion of doula support. Many doulas I know will work with people who need financial support. I personally keep a few spots a year open in my calendar for pregnant clients who may need financial support or a specific payment plan, and let a couple of the midwives I most work with know that I am available for support.

Are you generally working with women who are birthing at a hospital, or at home, or both?

As of a few years ago, I’m serving more at-home births, but most of the births in my career as a doula have been in hospitals.

How do doulas differ from midwives?

A midwife is a health professional trained to support and care for women during pregnancy, labor, and birth. A birth doula is a person who’s trained to offer educational, emotional, and physical support throughout pregnancy, labor, and birth.

So what this means is a doula is not trained to catch your baby, handle bleeding, resuscitate, give stitches, or any of that, which a midwife is trained to do—something I think a lot of people don’t know. That being said, some doulas, including myself, may have had the honor of catching a baby here and there by request!

Why do you think it is that so many people dont know that much about the difference between a doula and a midwife?

I wish more people knew more about midwives! We would all benefit from that. I’m grateful that we have hospitals for emergencies and legitimate high-risk situations, but I don’t believe that birth is a medical experience.

I think that a long time ago, when birth got taken out of the hands of midwives and became more medicalized, it took away from birth being a ritual where women supported women and they had a midwife for their care and doulas to support the midwives and mother.

What has been the most rewarding thing about being a doula?

Serving as a doula has been one of the most eye-opening and educational experiences of my life. It has helped me appreciate everything my body did when I birthed my two babies more than 10 years ago. It has given me a front-row seat to one of nature’s most powerful and sacred moments.

This career has opened my eyes to the sublime power women hold within their bodies and the impact that respect, safety, and loving care has on our birth outcomes for labor and early motherhood—and the ripple effect that care has on our future generations.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a doula?

When my kids were very young, it was very tricky because I didn’t know when I would be called to a birth and who would stay with them—I’m a single mom. Now they are teens, so it’s so much easier.

And also the long hours, being on call at all times, having to have my phone beside my bed, watching pregnant people be disrespected and coerced with fear tactics—and the deep surrender. 

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