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Doulas add comfort to birthing process

Women are labor aides — and can reassure dads

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The births of their first three children were miracles, but Randy and Mar'Lee Shumway still felt like the life-altering act of giving birth was somehow out of their control.

She wanted to be able to move as soon as the baby was born. She wanted to hold the child instantly. She even wanted to figure out a way to tough it out and avoid having an epidural for pain.

His wants were pretty basic: He felt like he was there but not part of the birth of his children. He wanted to be an integral part of the intimate process.

They hired a doula.

The word comes from Greek, meaning slave or servant. It means women in the service of other women and their partners. Most doulas are labor assistants in the birthing room. A second type can be hired for after the baby is born, to help with housework and provide assistance during the first few days after a birth.

The Shumways weren't worried about the days after their baby's birth. They wanted the birth itself to be different. When they hired Michelle Scharf, a member of the Utah Doula Association, it was a mutual interview. They had to be sure they were comfortable with each other and that they could create and reach common goals. Scharf brought along a survey, and they talked about it. It asked things like attitudes toward pain relief, as well as more personal, emotional questions. They talked about pain and what would be acceptable, about how important — or not — it was to both parents to have natural, unmedicated child birth. Then they drew up a "birthing plan," which they took to the doctor on the next prenatal visit.

It's no surprise that doulas are becoming increasingly popular, Scharf said. "Women are coming to believe birth is a medical condition, rather than a natural process of life." And most couples hunger for the feeling that they have some control over the miracle of birth, as well as the ability to experience all of it.

If a doula does her job well, she's an invisible factor in the birth room, Scharf said. What she provides is constant communication with the father, including reassurances. A doula has special training and knows techniques to make the laboring woman more comfortable. In this case, the baby was positioned so the nose was up. Using a huge rubber ball and a series of side lunges, Scharf and the Shumways turned the baby around, without medical intervention.

The doula, in fact, provides no medical intervention. They don't do anything "medical" at all. Those tasks belong to nurses, midwives or doctors. But a doula might pour a little water over a mother's stomach during contractions to ease them.

"We don't diagnose or monitor," Scharf said. "We're looking only at the psychological and social needs of the partners."

Most people hire a doula toward the end of the pregnancy. The Shumways hired Scharf at 30 weeks. One woman hired her 12 hours before giving birth; another 12 weeks early.

The doula stays with the mother until breast feeding is established, usually about two hours after birth. And she's available for consultation and support for the first few weeks of the baby's life.

Cost ranges, but locally it's about $150 to $200, depending on the delivery, Scharf said. Nationally, it's close to $500. The women, she asserts, are not in it for the money. "Most of us do this because we trust and love the beauty and power of birth. It brings us a lot of joy." Women become doulas at different times in their life, she added.

About 75 Utah women belong to DONA — Doulas of North America (www.dona.org). The association was started by Dr. Marshall Klaus, Dr. John Kennell, Phyllis Klaus, Penny Simkin and Annie Kennedy in 1992. They were convinced that trained doulas "provide the highest quality labor support to birthing women and their families."

Training consists of classwork and a certification that includes having attended and being evaluated on three births.

Scharf got started after she birthed her youngest baby at home. Her sister-in-law saw the video and asked her to provide support when she went into labor. Watching the whole experience of emerging life changed Scharf's direction.

Mar'Lee Shumway plans to have more babies — always with a doula. When they went into the hospital, Scharf took along oils and some "toys" like the big rubber ball to provide some relief. She coached Randy Shumway on constructive ways to support his wife through the pain. She also reminded the doctor what was in the birth plan, so the parents could experience their fourth child's entry to the world as they had hoped to.

Randy Shumway is, perhaps, the happiest of all with the process, although "at first, it sounded a little hokey."

Scharf helped him stay "constructively involved," and he described the experience as "a totally different thing than before. To me, it was neat to see (my wife and I) could accomplish something together as a team. It's hard to put into words. I was able to support my wife.

"The doula knew how to breathe, how to deal with personal issues, how to confront them. It just went so much better. And the recovery time was faster."

There's no question, said Randy Shumway, that Janet Aspen's birth was wonderful. And he was really part of it.

For more information on doulas, contract DONA at (801)756-7331.

E-mail: lois@desnews.com