How doulas provide emotional support and why it matters

I have had the privilege of meeting with many couples throughout my doula career to chat about their births. Sometimes I will get a question that I am not sure how to answer. Even after all this time, I still have a lot to learn.

I interviewed with a couple recently, and the dad asked me an interesting question. What exactly is emotional support? Why does it matter?

I answered that question as best as I could in the moment, but I did not feel satisfied that I answered that question in a way that helped him understand exactly how doulas provide emotional support and why it matters. The standard definition of birth doulas is someone trained in birth who provides emotional, physical, informational, and relational support before, during, and after labor. That has always been the definition, but I have never taken the opportunity to explore exactly what emotional support means until now.

What is emotional support?

I met with someone recently who happened to work in the field of mental health. After I gushed about Brene Brown with her, I began to ask her questions. I explained to her how I was stumped by being presented with this question. She said something to the effect of, “Emotional support is being able to identify what another person is feeling with accuracy and is able to respond in an appropriate, compassionate, and empathetic manner.”

I thought that was a perfect definition. It encapsulated everything I tried to explain in a direct and concise way. I loved her definition!

I’ve asked several people in the past few months what they believe emotional support is and whether or not they believe it is valuable. Everyone has said yes. They feel that having another person to be there for them, to have their back, to listen to their concerns without trying to offer advice or fix them, listening without judgement, offering compassion and empathy in a world deficient in it, and having someone who just gets it, is immensely valuable in all aspects of life, not just during birth. I’m sure most of us can think of times in our lives where we longed for emotional support and didn’t receive it. I’m sure we could identify how emotional support could have improved those situations.

How do doulas provide emotional support?

Doulas provide emotional support during birth in much the same way as a good friend would provide emotional support during any other time that you would want emotional support. In addition to listening to your concerns without judgement, caring about you, and having your back, doulas offer the following:

  • They have no other concerns or agenda- they do not need to chart or keep notes, or worry about keeping anyone alive.
  • They do not try to convince anyone to have a certain type of birth or accept interventions. In other words, they won’t say things like, “Just get the epidural already. There is no need to be a hero.”
  • They encourage, uplift, and never stop believing in their clients’ abilities to totally rock their amazing birth.
  • They see the person underneath all of the technology.
  • They provide warmth in a sterile environment.
  • They smile, tell jokes, or share affirmations when others are asking about pain levels, fixing monitors, or asking about the last time someone ate or went to the bathroom.
  • They remind their clients that they still have time when they feel pressured to answer NOW.
  • They provide calm reassurance which rubs off on those around them.
Melissa Birth Laughing at Jokes
Photo credit: Joanna Booth Photography

Why does emotional support matter?

The first studies done on doulas showed that just having another woman in the room helped women have better births. These women were not family members nor hospital workers. They also just sat in a corner. They did not do all the neat things that modern doulas do, yet they still helped women have better births by their presence alone.

Evidence shows that the best kind of support during birth is someone who knows about birth, is unaffiliated with the hospital, and is also not a member of the birthing person’s family. Doulas are immensely helpful in this area because there is no need to worry about offending a family member that you have to continue a relationship with later. Doulas don’t mind if someone rejects their suggestions or has a hard time staying polite. They understand that is just how labor goes. Doulas help relieve the pressure that many partners now face to know everything and be everything, especially if things begin to deviate from the original plan. They are an extra person that can answer questions if staff gets too busy to answer, and clients can also be assured that their doula will not  omit any important details from their answer.

A doula is in a unique position to practice loving detachment. Think about how hard it is to watch a loved one in pain, whether that is physical or emotional pain. I stink at seeing my husband and children in pain. I’d make a terrible doula for them!

People struggle with seeing loved ones in pain, and as such, have their own pain to deal with. A doula is able to provide support and encouragement without being caught up in anyone’s family dynamic. It is important to have someone that you can vent to without that person getting mad, upset, or taking things personally. It is important to be able to get angry or scared. It is important to have someone you can fall apart around without that person also falling apart. Doulas are used to being that mountain in the emotional turmoil of labor. Being able to weather the storms of labor can mean the difference between a low-intervention or high-intervention birth. It can also mean the difference between a traumatic or satisfying birth.


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