The following text and photo is excerpted from "Evidence on: Doulas" a recent article August 14, 2017 by Rebecca Dekker, on her incredibly informative website, Evidence Based Birth. You can read the full text of her article here: https://evidencebasedbirth.com/the-evidence-for-doulas/
Why are doulas so effective?
There are several reasons why we think doulas are so effective. The first reason is the “harsh environment” theory. In most developed countries, ever since birth moved out of the home and into the hospital, laboring people are frequently submitted to institutional routines, high intervention rates, staff who are strangers, lack of privacy, bright lighting, and needles.
Most of us would have a hard time dealing with these conditions when we’re feeling our best. But people in labor have to deal with these harsh conditions when they are in a very vulnerable state. These harsh conditions may slow down a person’s labor and their self-confidence. It is thought that a doula “buffers” this harsh environment by providing continuous support and companionship which promotes the mother’s self-esteem (Hofmeyr, Nikodem et al. 1991).
A second reason that doulas are effective is because doulas are a form of pain relief in themselves (Hofmeyr, 1991). With continuous support, laboring people are less likely to request epidurals or pain medication. It is thought that there is fewer use of medications because birthing people feel less pain when a doula is present. An additional benefit to the avoidance of epidural anesthesia is that women may avoid many medical interventions that often go along with an epidural, including Pitocin augmentation and continuous electronic fetal monitoring (Caton, Corry et al. 2002).
This finding—that people with doulas are less likely to have an epidural—is not due to the fact that clients with doulas in these studies were more likely to want these things up front and were more motivated to achieve them. In fact, randomized trials account for these differences—this is why they are called randomized, controlled trials. The people assigned to have a doula, and those assigned to not have a doula, are randomly assigned, meaning that the same percentage in each group would have a desire for an unmedicated birth.
A third reason why doulas are effective has to do with the attachment between the birthing person and doula which can lead to an increase in oxytocin, the hormone that promotes labor contractions. This theory was proposed by Dr. Amy Gilliland in her 2010a study about effective labor support. In personal correspondence with Dr. Gilliland, she wrote, “I believe the Doula Effect is related to attachment. When the mother feels vulnerable in labor, she directs attachment behaviors to suitable figures around her, who may or may not be her attachment figures (parent, mate). When the mother directs attachment seeking behaviors to the doula, the experienced doula (25 births or more) responds in a unique manner. She is able to respond as a secure base, thereby soothing the mother’s attachment system. The accompanying diminishment in stress hormones allows for a surge in oxytocin in both the mother and the doula… theoretically, oxytocin is the hormone of attachment, and it is released during soothing touch and extended eye contact, which are habitual behaviors of birth doulas.” (Personal communication, Dr. Amy Gilliland, July 2015).
Swedish oxytocin researcher Kristin Uvnas Moberg writes that the doula enhances oxytocin release which decreases stress reactions, fear, and anxiety, and increases contraction strength and effectiveness. In addition, the calming effect of the doula’s presence increases the mother’s own natural pain coping hormones (beta-endorphins), making labor feel less painful (Uvnas Moberg, 2014).
Based on the evidence, I have come up with a conceptual model of how doula support influences outcomes.
A conceptual model is what researchers use to try and understand how a phenomenon works. Here is my conceptual model on the phenomenon of doula support.