Nine years ago, my husband and I were just a pair of sweetly naïve parents-to-be. We did what most good-intentioned, almost-parents do to prepare for a new baby, from the books, to the classes, to the appointments.

I read a series of “what to expect” type books, reading out loud select passages to my husband. We went to the prenatal appointments together, and we attended a weekend seminar covering childbirth and newborn basics. Because an epidural wasn’t an option thanks to a family bleeding disorder, I researched alternate pain management options.

We were clear on the logistics and mechanics involved in childbirth, and while I had a birth plan in mind, I was prepared to be flexible. I also had complete faith in my doctor. I trusted her, and I figured her competent, knowledgeable manner would help put me at ease when it was go time.

We were nervous and excited, of course, but I felt completely prepared for what was to come.

Turns out, I wasn’t even close. We were basically clueless.

When you can’t predict how labor will go

Every labor is different, and that’s what makes every labor the same. During my first labor and delivery:

  • My water broke two weeks early while my doctor was in Disneyland, so another doctor from her practice — someone I’d never met — would be delivering our baby instead.
  • After my water broke and my contractions began, I stalled somewhere around the 4- or 5-centimeter mark.
  • The nurse told me they’d be “helping me along” to get things going again. I agreed, but had idea to what I was agreeing to.
  • The Pitocin they gave me took me from the stalled 4 or 5 centimeters to fully dilated in 90 frenzied, exhausting, excruciating minutes that left me clutching the side of the hospital bed and whimpering in pain.
  • By the time I could articulate that I needed painkillers, I was told it was too late, I was too far along, and to keep focusing on my breathing.
  • The doctor arrived literally minutes before my son was born, asking if I was ready for an epidural even though “no epidural” was noted all over my chart.
  • There were two staff changes during my labor, which meant different faces coming and going.
  • We were left alone for long stretches at a time, much to my husband’s restrained panic.
  • I tore and required stitches.

Now, after nine years, three additional pregnancies, labors, and deliveries, plus the wisdom that comes with time and experience, I can say unequivocally that I should have hired a doula.

And you should, too.

What is a doula?

A doula, from the Greek word meaning women’s servant, is an advocate for a pregnant woman. Doulas have been trained to provide emotional, physical, and educational support to help women have safe and empowering birthing experiences.

What does that mean?

It means you’re not alone. All of the classes and books and appointments in the world can’t really prepare first time parents for the reality of labor and delivery. You think you know, but you really don’t.

Having the steadying presence of someone who is there solely to offer knowledgeable support and experienced guidance to you (and your partner, who is likely just astonished and mystified by this whole process) is immensely reassuring. That alone makes a doula so valuable.

In most instances, you begin your relationship with the doula a few months before your baby’s due date. A doula can answer all of your questions and work with you to develop a realistic birth plan. She’ll probably be on hand for a few visits after your baby is born as well, which is just as reassuring as having her at the delivery.

A doula isn’t a substitute for a doctor or a midwife. Doulas don’t offer medical care, but rather support during your pregnancy and birthing experience.

No matter what your baby’s delivery ultimately involves — a cesarean, a drug-free birth, an epidural, whatever — a doula is there to make the experience as safe and positive as possible.

There aren’t official statistics, but it’s estimated that doulas oversee roughly 1 percent of births in the United States, and the number seems to be rising. Multiple studies point to the benefits of having a doula or other experienced support person at your delivery, not only in high numbers of positive birth outcomes, but with fewer pain relief medications and cesarean deliveries.

Doulas can be very hands-on during labor, and things like massage and simple touch can help laboring mothers feel less stressed and anxious. A woman’s body is an amazing thing, and it’s no surprise that having the constant, calm support of someone who is knowledgeable and encouraging can bring us courage to do what really feels impossible.

It’s not just laboring mothers who benefit from a doula, either. When you have a doula on board as a labor coach, it frees up your partner when they need to step back and regroup. Watching someone you love during labor and childbirth, especially when the entire situation is out of your hands, is emotionally and physically draining. It’s nice for your partner to have someone to lean on, too.

Having a doula present at my first delivery would have meant a constant, reassuring presence at our side as the doctor and nurses flitted in and out. It would have meant that options like Pitocin were clearly explained, and that other avenues to jump-start my stalled labor would have been considered.

Instead of trying (and failing) to grit it out, I would have been shown techniques for pain relief. And instead of feeling like a passenger on a completely out-of-control rollercoaster, I would have had a chance to become an active participant in my labor and delivery, just as I did with subsequent pregnancies.

The takeaway

A doula is an advocate for laboring mothers and their partners — nothing more, nothing less. It’s the single biggest regret I have when I think of my first birthing experience, and it’s why I encourage every mom-to-be to consider what I didn’t.