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Caregiver soothes women, aids during birth
Aug. 26, 2002

Special to the Observer-Dispatch

Time was when a woman’s companions during childbirth were doctors and nurses, period.

In recent decades, fathers and significant others have become fixtures in the delivery room. Today, many babies are delivered not by obstetricians but by midwives — licensed professionals qualified to handle “normal” births.

All these people bustle around the laboring mother-to-be with the goal of safer, happier childbirth.

But a growing number of women see a role for one more kind of caregiver in the process — a woman to soothe, comfort, instruct, encourage and stick up for the mother: a doula.

The word, according to Doulas of North America, comes from the ancient Greek and means “woman’s servant.”

“A doula is a woman, a caregiver trained to provide physical, emotional and informational support to a woman and her husband before, during and after childbirth,” said Heather Allen of Deansboro, a certified doula. “A doula’s part of the labor support team, not a replacement for a midwife or a doctor.”

There are a handful of doulas in Central New York. The profession is not licensed by the state, but organizations such as Doulas of North America offer certification based on study, experience and positive evaluations by doctors, midwives and mothers.

For a fee ranging from $300 to $600, Allen will be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the two weeks before and two weeks after her client’s due date.

She’ll make one or two pre-natal visits and will be ready to be summoned when labor begins. Often, she will join the mother at home in the exciting but nerve-wracking early stages of labor, before the trip to the hospital.

She’ll help the mother know what to expect and even help her write a “birth plan” — a statement of the mother’s preferences about things like whether to use drugs for pain, whether to use medicine or non medical means to speed labor, and keeping the newborn with her for a time after birth. And in the delivery room, she’ll make sure the medical team knows the plan and adheres to it.

Perhaps most important, she will not leave the mother’s side throughout the process. That makes her a source of comfort to both the mother and the father, giving a level of attention that nurses, doctors and midwives simply can’t match.

“To get through the pain, you have to relax,” said Carolyn Hsu, a professor of sociology at Colgate University who employed Allen during the birth of her daughter Lin Henke in October. “Now if something is basically ripping your guts in half, the last thing you would think to do is relax. ... Heather was there and she would say, ‘OK, now relax, unclench your jaw.’ She was watching me and knew what was happening.”

“I just don’t know how I would have done it without her,” said Hsu, whose husband, Christopher Henke, also teaches at Colgate. “All together, our feeling after the whole thing was we didn’t pay her enough.”

Allen sometimes has to leave her own family on short notice and be gone for as long as 24 hours. “Having a support system is key,” she said. “Especially if you have children and a family, you have to be able to find someone to take over for you.”

Allen used a doula during the birth of her second son, Eddie, on the recommendation of her midwife. She was so impressed that she became a doula herself, and is now certified by DONA and has attended upward of 30 births in Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Hamilton and Cooperstown.

She generally has between one and four clients per month, though there are months she takes off for time with her own family.

Amy Falvo of Trenton said Allen made labor more bearable — and more efficient — when she gave birth to her son Joseph in March 2001.

“It was going slowly because I wasn’t relaxed,” said Falvo, a director of United Cerebral Palsy. “Heather helped me relax and let the contractions do their job.”

Allen helped prepare a birth plan for Falvo and her husband, Gene, president of Falvo Manufacturing in Utica. She stayed in the picture as Joseph and his new parents got to know each other.

“After the birth, she came to the hospital the next day to check how things were going, and she also came to the house a few days later to make sure everything was going all right,” Falvo said.

Allen said she expects the demand for doulas to rise because they provide an economic benefit as well as an emotional one.

“There have been scientific studies done that show doulas reduce the cesarean section rate by 50 percent,” and reduce the use of expensive epidural pain medicine and risky forceps births, Allen said.

For those reasons, more than 100 hospitals nationwide now offer doula service at little or no cost, and even insurance companies are starting to cover the service.

“They’re realizing that, ‘If we pay $400 for the doula, we’ll save $3,000 on the hospital bill,’” she said. “So as that picks up, I think doulas are going to be much more common.”

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